http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/sep/2 ... ook.attackThe London home of the publisher of a controversial new novel that gives a fictionalised account of the Prophet Muhammad's relationship with his child bride, Aisha, was firebombed yesterday, hours after police had warned the man that he could be a target for fanatics.
A petrol bomb is believed to have been thrown through the door of Martin Rynja's £2.5m town house in Islington's Lonsdale Square, which also doubles as the headquarters of his publishing company, Gibson Square. Three men have been arrested on terrorism charges.
The Observer has learned that police told Rynja late on Friday night to leave his property. His company recently made headlines when it announced it was to publish The Jewel of Medina.
Written by US journalist Sherry Jones, the book was due to have been published in August by US giant Random House. But amid controversy the company halted publication, a move denounced by Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, as 'censorship by fear'.
Rynja bought the UK publishing rights earlier this month. 'The Jewel of Medina has become an important barometer of our time,' Rynja said at the time. 'As an independent publishing company, we feel strongly that we should not be afraid of the consequences of debate.'
Yesterday the Metropolitan Police confirmed that three men had been arrested in connection with the incident in Lonsdale Square. Two men aged 22 and 30 were stopped by armed officers in the street outside the property and a third man, aged 40, was arrested near Angel tube station. Police have begun searching four addresses around north-east London - two in Walthamstow, one in Ilford and one in Forest Gate.
The men were arrested on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism, and last night were being questioned at a central London police station, a Met spokesman said. Scotland Yard confirmed that a small fire inside the property had been extinguished. 'At this early stage it is being linked with the arrests,' the spokesman said.
Residents in the square said armed police, assisted by firefighters, broke down the door of the property at around 2.30am yesterday.
Francesca Liebowitz, 16, who lives five doors away with her parents, said: 'The police couldn't get the door open so the fire brigade battered it down. It's a bit scary to have this happen on your doorstep. Nothing like this has ever happened round here before.'
Rynja, whose company has also published Londonistan by journalist Melanie Phillips and Blowing up Russia by murdered dissident Alexander Litvinenko, appears to have been determined to use Jones's book to take a stand for free speech.
'I was completely bowled over by the novel and the moving love story it portrays,' he said earlier this month. 'I was struck by the careful research of Sherry Jones, who is a journalist with almost 30 years of experience, and her passion for the novel's characters. I immediately felt that it was imperative to publish it. In an open society there has to be open access to literary works, regardless of fear.'
One of his neighbours in Lonsdale Square, a friend who also works in the publishing industry, said Rynja had not expressed any fears that he might be attacked. 'I just hope this does not dissuade him from his work,' the friend said. 'We live in a country of free speech and Martin is very passionate about that.'
The book, despite being described by one critic as 'a rarity in Islamic-themed literature: an attempt by a Western woman to fictionalise the personal life of the Prophet and to bring to a wider audience one of the great feminist heroines of the Middle East', has attracted criticism. One sex scene has been described as 'softcore pornography' by an American academic, Denise Spellberg, an influential professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas.
Spellberg made the comments after Random House sent her the book hoping for a favourable comment to publish on its jacket. Instead, in an email that was leaked to the US press, Spellberg described the novel as a 'very ugly, stupid piece of work'.
'I don't have a problem with historical fiction,' Spellberg wrote. 'I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into softcore pornography.'
It appears Spellberg was instrumental in drawing attention to the book among segments of the Muslim community. In April, Shahed Amanullah, an editor of a popular Muslim website, claimed Spellberg had told him the book 'made fun of Muslims and their history'.
Amanullah sent emails to Middle East and Islamic studies students, claiming: 'Just got a frantic call from a professor who got an advance copy of the forthcoming novel Jewel of Medina - she said she found it incredibly offensive.'
The resulting furore prompted Random House to pull the book, a move that dismayed its author, who received a $100,000 advance. 'To claim that Muslims will answer my book with violence is pure nonsense,' Jones told a German newspaper last month. 'Anyone who reads the book will see that it honours the Prophet and his favourite wife.'
She expressed anger at the political consequences of Random House's decision. 'That one of the biggest publishing houses in the world refuses to publish a book because of warnings is a sobering comment on the state of freedom of speech in the USA,' she said.
What bothers me is not that the book might be offensive to Muslims; as far as I'm concerned anything is open to criticism and mockery regardless of its sanctity. What bothers me is not the extremists firebombing this publisher; extremism will always exist and must simply be dealt with case-by-case.
What bothers me is reflected in the final paragraph of the article. It seems that any group that wields enough political or violent clout can undermine the right to free speech. What's worse is that what essentially amounts to censorship is justified by the corporations and government in the name of equality and tolerance. </rant>