Arrests after fire at publisher of Mohammad book

LONDON (Reuters) - Police said they had arrested three men on suspicion of terrorism on Saturday after a fire at the office of a London firm that is about to publish a controversial novel about the Prophet Mohammad’s child bride.

An armed police officer stands in front of The Houses of Parliament in London, in this file photo. REUTERS/Toby Melville

Armed officers arrested two of the men in the street outside a property in a north London square in the early hours of Saturday. The third was arrested nearby.

Police said a small fire was put out at a property in the square and the blaze was “being linked to the arrests of the men.”

The fire, which caused minor damage, was at a building housing the office of Gibson Square publishers.

“It is believed flammable material was the cause of the fire,” a police spokesman said.

Gibson Square said this month it had bought the rights to publish “The Jewel of Medina,” by journalist Sherry Jones, after Random House, a unit of Bertelsmann AG, dropped plans to publish the novel fearing it could “incite acts of violence.” The book is due to be published in Britain in October.

A green corrugated metal sheet covered the entrance to the building on Saturday. A spokesman for Gibson Square could not immediately be reached for comment.

The arrested men, aged 40, 30 and 22, were being held at a central London police station on suspicion of the “commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism,” police said, adding that four properties in London had been searched.

“The Jewel of Medina” traces the life of A’isha from her engagement to Mohammad, when she was six, until the prophet’s death.

Jones said in August she was shocked Random House had abandoned publication. “I have deliberately and consciously written respectfully about Islam and Mohammad ... I envisioned that my book would be a bridge-builder,” she told Reuters.

Random House said at the time it had been advised that the book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community and could incite violence by a “small, radical segment.”

Publishers in 10 countries, including Britain, later bought the rights to the novel.

The novel was pulled from bookstores in Serbia in August to avoid conflict with the country’s Muslim minority, the publisher said, although it later went back on sale.

Protests and riots erupted in many Muslim countries in 2006 when cartoons, one showing the Prophet Mohammad wearing a turban resembling a bomb, appeared in a Danish newspaper. At least 50 people were killed and Danish embassies attacked.

Author Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” was met with riots across the Muslim world. Rushdie was forced into hiding for several years after Iran’s then supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, proclaimed a death edict, or fatwa, against him.

Reporting by Adrian Croft, Michael Holden, Tim Castle; Editing by Giles Elgood