This is the fourth installment of our Authored series, where writers grapple with the promotional and marketing aspects of their new books. Previously, on Authored...
- Shilpa Agarwal on "Haunting Bombay"
- Minal Hajratwala on "Leaving India: My Family's Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents"
- Dilara Hafiz on "The American Muslim Teenager's Handbook"
This time, Kamran Pasha--whose TV writing and producing credits include "Kings" and "Sleeper Cell"-- writes about promoting his new novel, "Mother of the Believers," told from the point of view of Aisha, the prophet Muhammad's teenage wife. In December, we ran an item on his blog entries from Mecca. For those of us who have never been on Hajj, and never will, it was a fascinating window into the journey. And as Kamran writes below, it also happened to be a highly sophisticated and topical way of getting his name out, prior to his book's release.
Mother of the Believers: Lessons in Online Buzz
By Kamran Pasha
When I decided to write Mother of the Believers, my novel on the birth of Islam, I realized that I was wading into controversial waters. The book, which tells the story of Prophet Muhammad’s young wife Aisha, was guaranteed to attract attention. A similarly themed novel, The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones, had become the center of a media storm when its initial publisher canceled release of the book out of fear of a Muslim backlash. And so I knew I was walking into a potential minefield with my own take on Aisha’s story. But instead of hiding from controversy, I decided that I would face the danger head on, by making my case on the Internet months before the book’s publication. And in the process, I created an online buzz about the novel long before anyone had a chance to even read a word.
Having watched Ms. Jones experience, and being aware of the ugly legacy of the whole Salman Rushdie affair, I decided to first establish my credentials as someone who was qualified to even approach the subject matter. Unlike most other novelists in this arena, I am a practicing Muslim. I take my faith very seriously and wrote this book both to illuminate Islam as I see it, but also to address many of the negative attacks that have been launched against my religion over the past few years.
Islam in general has a bad rap in the West as a violent and misogynistic faith, both perceptions that are false and belie the Islam I know and live, which is a religion of love, peace and harmony. And so I wanted to tell the story of Islam’s birth from the point of view of an empowered woman, Aisha, who was a scholar, a politician and a military commander who led armies into battle. She was also the most beloved of Prophet Muhammad’s wives and it was in her arms that the founder of Islam passed away. I knew that Aisha single-handedly shattered all stereotypes of the oppressed Muslim woman, and I hoped that telling her tale would begin a much-needed dialogue about the true nature of Islam. But first I had to present myself as someone whose opinion was worth listening to on the subject. The big question was how could I establish myself as a unique voice amid the cacophony of opinions regarding Islam in the media?
Blogging the Hajj
As fate (or Divine will) would have it, my mother last year decided to go to Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and asked me to accompany her. Neither she nor I had ever been to the sacred city, which is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event for Muslims, and the idea suddenly struck me that I should write a live blog from Mecca recounting our spiritual journey. I hired a wonderful online publicity firm, FSB Associates, to spread word about my blog, and I immediately started recording my journey from the day I arrived in Saudi Arabia and visited the tomb of Prophet Muhammad, as well as the grave of Aisha, the heroine of my novel.
The blog proved to be a huge success, as I was satisfying the curiosity of readers all over the world. The pilgrimage remains a matter of mystery to most people. Most Muslims will probably never have the opportunity to go and must rely on accounts of the pilgrimage from those who are lucky enough to make the journey. And for non-Muslims, the pilgrimage is wrapped in a total veil of mystery, as unbelievers are not allowed inside Mecca. So most people of other faiths know nothing of what goes on during this remarkable annual event when millions of people from all over the world come to worship God together in the Arabian desert.
My blog provided a day-to-day account of my experiences in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but also gave me a chance to share my personal vision of Islam as a religion of great love and compassion. It was a vision that touched not only my Muslim readers, but also elicited warm responses from many people of other faiths who finally got a glimpse of why Islam works as a religion and why people continue to flock to this faith, despite all the negative impressions created in the media. The blog is archived at blog.kamranpasha.com, and I often read it again to relive the remarkable experience that I shared with my mother on this life-changing journey.
Turning blog buzz into bylines
By the time I returned from pilgrimage in December, my blog had elevated my standing in the media as a new voice for mainstream Islam. My opinions on Islam now mattered, and I had a loyal reader base to who I could start speaking about issues that were important to me. Working with my friends at FSB Associates, I began to write a series of opinion pieces on topics I felt strongly about, from the horror of honor killings to President Obama’s efforts to heal the rift between America and the Muslim world. These opinion pieces were featured on major web sites, including WashingtonPost.com and the Huffington Post, where I have since become a regular contributor.
In these articles, I sought to accomplish two objectives. First I wanted to present an authentic Muslim voice on many issues that are hot-button topics. And second, I wanted to show how my views are not just one man’s opinion, but derive directly from Islamic sources and history. And since my novel, Mother of the Believers, is based heavily on early Islamic sources, I would be able to show how mainstream Muslim views supporting women’s rights and rejecting extremism can be deduced from the earliest teachings of my faith.
These efforts have proven to be remarkably fruitful. By the time my novel was published last month, I had already become established as a respected commentator on Muslim issues, with a reader base all over the world. My online editorials have been distributed widely over the Internet, and I have received responses from readers in Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa. My reputation as an outspoken voice for mainstream Islam and against extremism has created as vibrant community of supporters who were also eager to read my book.
And that support has translated into brisk sales for a book that might otherwise have been lost in the shuffle of hundreds of new novels to be published this year. The majority of emails I have received have been incredibly supportive, with many believers saying that it inspired them to become better Muslims. And people of other faiths have consistently said that my presentation of Islam has shattered many of their negative preconceived ideas about the faith, and has encouraged them to learn more about Islam. Many particularly appreciated my efforts to preemptively address the kinds of criticisms that I expected people to make about my novel. An article I wrote looking at the controversial aspects of Prophet Muhammad’s life in context elicited a great deal of discussion on online forums long before the novel debuted. As a result, I was able to respond to potential attacks before they were made and was able to set the parameters of the debate before the novel was even launched. Since my opinions on these controversial matters were already out in the world before the book came out, I was able to turn what could have been a rallying point for protest and boycotts into a sophisticated discussion which inspired people to read the book and come to their own conclusions.
Dealing with Critics and Haters
Of course, I should add that not everyone likes my opinions or the way I portray Islam in my novel. I have regrettably received some negative responses from both Muslims and non-Muslims who dislike what I have to say for their own reasons. It seems there will always be some people who want Islam to be exactly what the extremists and the fundamentalists say it is, a religion of cruelty and oppression. I have received angry emails from Taliban supporters who have labeled me a “hypocrite” or an “unbeliever” for criticizing their primitive and ugly vision of Islam, which I show in my novel to be a deviation from the true teachings of Prophet Muhammad. And their counterparts among the Islamophobes have also begun a campaign against me, saying that I am a “liar” who seeks to deceive people about the danger Islam presents to the world by presenting a “false face” of moderation.
I recently made the mistake of trying to engage a well known Islam-basher who contacted me over email, and then proceeded to post my responses on his website as “proof” of how Muslims seek to hide the true evil nature of our religion. That experience taught me that responding to angry people who are not interested in dialogue is a waste of time and energy, as their only agenda is to twist words to their advantage, not to find truth and common ground. Some people, both among the Muslims and non-Muslims, are so filled with anger and fear of other religions that they see everything through the prism of hate. Both Muslim extremists and the Islamophobes share the same twisted vision of Islam, and they are both wrong.
And it is a vision that the majority of the Muslim community will never accept, juts like the Ku Klux Klan will never convince the majority of Christians that their faith is about hatred and stupidity (a view shared by many liberal, anti-religion writers like Sam Harris). The extremists on both sides have a cheap, childish and ugly vision of faith, but religion survives exactly because it offers people more than the garbage promoted by the worst among us. Islam, like Christianity, lives on because it is ultimately about love, hope and community, no matter how much its enemies (inside and out) want it to be evil and destructive. I do not apologize for defending my faith from the extremists on both sides that want to make it something monstrous. But I have learned, as the Holy Qur’an teaches, that there are some ignorant people to whom you should simply say “peace” and move on.
None of these exchanges would have happened, of course, had I not entered the debate in the first place and presented myself as a writer with a voice that needed to be acknowledged. And so the lesson for my fellow writers is that the best way to create an online buzz for their books is to answer some important questions long before their work is published. Why am I writing this? Why should anyone care about my point of view? What can I do to establish myself as a credible voice on this subject? And how can I engage potential readers long before my book hits the stores?
Everyone will answer these questions differently. There is no simplistic formula for gaining attention for your work and promoting it to the world. Some efforts will be more successful than others. But we are living in a remarkable time. With the incredible power of the Internet, with the staggering social networking abilities provided by websites such as Facebook and Twitter, there is no really no excuse for writers to hide inside their shells and hope for the best come Pub Date.
The hard part was getting the book published. The even harder part is managing how the world reacts to it. But who said being a writer is easy? I, for one, would have it no other way.
--by Kamran Pasha