Norwegian Publisher Cancels Biography of Muhammed
October 2, 2010 - by Rita Karlsen
The Norwegian historian and journalist Halvor Tjønn has written a biography of the founder of Islam, Muhammed. The book was announced by the Oslo publisher Kagge in last year’s fall catalog. But now the publisher has suddenly pulled out — and refuses to provide any explanation of why it no longer wishes to publish the book.
According to the newspaper Aftenposten, Kagge says that it doesn’t consider it dangerous to put out such a book, but at the same time it refuses to give a reason for its turnaround:
It was five years ago today that Jyllands-Posten published the drawings that led to the cartoon crisis. In Halvor Tjønn’s planned Muhammed biography there are no illustrations. Tjønn delivered the manuscript of his book, which is based largely on Muslim historians’ accounts of the prophet’s life, as early as late January last year. The historical records the author has used as the basis for his book are from the eighth and ninth centuries.
”We have now agreed with the author that we will not publish this book.We wish him luck with another publisher,” says Anne Gaathaug, Kaage’s publishing director.
”Does the decision have anything to do with the powerful reactions by Muslims to the Muhammed cartoons and with your fear that the book might cause trouble?”
”It’s an internal matter. I have no further comments,” says Gaathaug.
“Has the publisher received threats in connection with the publication?”
”The publishing house has not received threats. And we did not consider it dangerous at all to publish the book. That’s not the reason why we don’t want to give it out,” says Gaathaug.
Halvor Tjønn, who works as reporter on Aftenposten’s foreign desk, says he is surprised by the publisher’s decision. Tjønn, as well, is not especially willing to talk about the reason for the differences over the book, but we understand that it’s not about the book’s quality:
“It goes without saying that if the publisher had objections to the book’s quality, that would have come up much earlier in the process, and not after a year and a half,” he says
Nonetheless, Tjønn does not wish to detail the reasons he has been given for the rejection.
“It has to be up to Kagge Publishing to give an account of the assessments they have made,” he says.
For his own part, Tjønn thinks that there is little in the book that would cause Muslims to react negatively.
“A large number of Muhammed biographies have been published around the world. My book, consisting of 400 text-filled pages, does not include a single illustration, aside from historical maps. The book does not express my personal opinions. Everything is based on historical sources and analyses by some modern Western historians,” he says.
According to Aftenposten the author and publisher signed a contract for the book in January 2009. Shortly afterward, he handed in his completed manuscript, which he had been working on since the spring of 2007. Last summer the publisher asked him to add footnotes and references to his source materials, a labor that took several months. The book was also included in Kagge’s 2009 fall catalog. But in July of this year came the news: it was ”best that another publisher take the book.”
But nobody at Kagge Publishing will say why it is best, in their view, that another publisher take on the book. Aftenposten notes that in January of this year the magazine section of the Norwegian newspaper Dagen reported on the project. In the article, the head of the publishing house, whom the reporter described as the ”secretive publisher Erling Kagge,” said that he wanted the plans for the book to receive as little publicity as possible.
”Yes, we’re working on a biography of Muhammed, but it’s much too early to say anything about the book now. The Aftenposten journalist Halvor Tjønn is writing at high gear,” Kagge told Dagen Magazinet at the time.
What is this? An act of self-censorship on the part of the publisher? Some professional disagreement? If the latter, why can’t it be straightened out? But if it’s the former, it’s nothing less than a tragedy. It is not becoming for a publisher to say ”No further comment.”
It can only be hoped that another publisher will decide to snap up what must certainly be described as a very timely book. Then the readers will be able to decide whether it was worth publishing or not.
Translated from the Norwegian by Bruce Bawer