The timing of Michel Houellebecq’s new novel was, unfortunately, serendipitous. The French author’s book Soumission (Submission), which depicts a 2022 French presidential election between Front National leader Marine Le Pen and Mohammed Ben Abbes, the head of a newly created Muslim party, hit French shelves on Wednesday — the same day three gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar!” killed ten journalists and two policemen at the Paris headquarters of humor magazine Charlie Hebdo.
In fact, Houellebecq graces the cover of the magazine’s most recent issue — albeit in caricatured form: “In 2015, I lose my teeth,” predicts a chain-smoking Houellebecq in sorcerer’s garb. “In 2022, I observe Ramadan.” Charlie Hebdo’s mockery was gentle compared with other critics. Boris Kachka, writing at Vulture, calls Houellebecq a “notorious anti-Muslim provocateur.” “Islamophobic” is the usual charge; Soumission’s “Islamophobia” made Ali Baddou, a Paris professor and television personality, “want to vomit.” Tariq Ramadan, an Islamic-studies professor at Oxford, accuses Houellebecq of “manipulate[ing] other people’s fears and feed[ing] a new, civilized racism.”
Much of that has to do with Houellebecq’s past — fictional and otherwise. In 2001, he published Plateforme (Platform), about a travel agency that turns to promoting sex tourism in Thailand. At one point, a resort is attacked by Islamic terrorists who kill nearly 120 people. In the wake of the bombing, the narrator writes:
Islam had smashed my life, and Islam was certainly something I could hate; in the following days, I set myself to feeling hatred for Muslims. . . . Each time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child, or a pregnant Palestinian woman, had been shot in the Gaza strip, I felt a quiver of satisfaction that there was one Muslim fewer.
Critics who already disliked Houellebecq were quick to label the narrator’s feelings as the author’s — especially since, in a pre-publication interview with a French magazine, Houellebecq had declared, “La religion la plus con, c’est quand-même l’Islam.” Roughly: “The stupidest religion is, after all, Islam,” which he also deemed “a dangerous religion from the start.” The Koran, he added, was badly written. For those remarks, Houellebecq was hauled before a Paris court on charges of “inciting racial hatred and religious violence.” He was eventually acquitted under France’s free speech protections.
Ironically, the furor over Houellebecq’s comments broke out days before the September 11 attacks. And one year later, in an attack that made Platform’s look tame, Islamic terrorists killed 200 people, mostly Westerners, at a nightclub in Bali. It “wasn’t hard to predict,” Houellebecq told The Paris Review in a 2010 interview. “It also could have happened in Malaysia, another Muslim country with lots of prostitutes for Westerners.”
Houellebecq’s latest book is not yet available in English, so fully evaluating its contents must be left for the moment to its French readers. But what is nonetheless clear is that Houellebecq is hardly “anti-Muslim” — despite his critics’ protestations to the contrary.
First, one need simply consider Soumission’s plot (the details of which are available online). After France’s Muslim president establishes Sharia law, the narrator, a Paris professor, flees the country; then he discovers that unemployment and crime rates in France fall, and that by converting to Islam he can obtain — besides other, more rarefied objects – multiple submissive wives and a good salary. “You can’t really describe this book as a pessimistic prediction,” Houellebecq told The Paris Review in a recent interview. “At the end of the day, things don’t go all that badly, really.”
In fact, writing the novel seems to have made Houellebecq more sympathetic to Islam than before: “In the end the Koran turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I’ve reread it — or rather, read it.” He says that “jihadists are bad Muslims” and that he is not “writing out of fear” because “I feel, rather, that we can make arrangements.”
“I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim,” he explained, “and I realized that, in reality, they are in a totally schizophrenic situation.” Disinclined to vote for either Left or Right, “the truth is, [the French Muslim is] in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever.”
These hardly sound like the words of a hardened “Islamophobe.” Yet The Paris Review’s interviewer, Sylvain Bourmeau, a Paris-based professor, seems determined to out his interlocutor. He asks why Houellebecq insists on “unrealistic exaggerations,” whether he thinks he is promoting “the image of France . . . in which Islam hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles, like the most frightening thing of all,” and why he adopts categories of description that are “worse than dubious.” When Houellebecq insists that “we have extended the domain of ‘racism’ by inventing the crime of Islamophobia,” Bourmeau calls it “cultural racism.” Houellebecq’s retort is spot-on: “Now you’re asking words to mean something they don’t. . . . You can’t stretch the word to give it some higher meaning.”
The interview goes on in that vein, Bourmeau insisting that Houellebecq is a closet racist — and inevitably missing Houellebecq’s repeated point: that this is not a book about the contemporary politics of Islam in France. “My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people.” As a consequence, “I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise. . . . I don’t believe that a society can survive without religion.” Yet what is one to do, where is one to turn, he asks, when the Enlightenment, on one hand, and French Christianity, on the other, are lifeless? That is the question facing Soumission’s protagonist.
Reviewing Soumission in the newspaper Le Parisien this week, Franz-Olivier Giesbert called it “a writers’ book, not a political one,” which seems consistent with Houellebecq’s own estimation. Although the author is content to call it a “political fiction,” his interests, by his own account, are more philosophical and literary than political. That is precisely what one would expect from someone who has said, “What I think, fundamentally, is that you can’t do anything about major societal changes” — that is, by any means, let alone through a novel. “My book won’t have any effect.”
Perhaps, perhaps not. In either case, to the extent that Houellebecq is engaging his contemporary political situation, it is by means of a work of imagination, not a political tract, because Houellebecq is a novelist, not a polemicist. “I am not an intellectual. I don’t take sides, I defend no regime.” But the outlines of his story — before the details get out, before readers dive in — are so enticing to those who need “Islamophobia” to be a great cultural scourge, a spreading shadow-epidemic, that they would rather smear France’s premier author than rethink their narrative.
Which is fiction, indeed.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.