If gunmen hadn’t attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo today, killing 12 people (including the provocative magazine’s editor-in-chief), the conflict over Islam’s place in Europe would still have been Paris’s topic one. There were yesterday’s rallies in Germany to talk about, some in sympathy with France’s anti-immigrant National Front, but also the publication of the sixth novel by notorious anti-Muslim provocateur Michel Houellebecq, out today. A caricature of Houellebecq graces Charlie Hebdo’s new cover, after all.
“The predictions of the sorcerer Houellebecq,” reads the headline, beside an unflattering drawing of the author smoking in a magician’s outfit. “In 2015, I lose my teeth,” reads one speech bubble. “In 2022, I observe Ramadan.” The novel in question, Soumission (Submission), has a plot even more tendentious than those of Houellebecq past. In 2022, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen runs for prime minister against a purportedly moderate Muslim candidate; French leftists side with the latter. The next day, Sharia law, more or less. The narrator, already recanting his atheism, picks up Islam (enticed by the polygamy). The rest of Europe follows, it seems, fashioning a caliphate in the image of the Roman Empire.
No one yet knows (though many have speculated) whether the publication of Soumission had anything to do with the attack, but the author and Islam have a long history. “The stupidest of all religions,” he once called it in an interview — a quote that got him charged in 2002 with inciting religious hatred (though a Paris court later dropped the charge).
France has a long love-hate relationship with Houellebecq, who seems to rate liberté above egalité (and ignore fraternité completely). The novel that precipitated his incendiary interviews was 2001’s Platform, wherein a narrator finds blissful escape in Thai sex trafficking before a terrorist massacre ends the reverie. Like other of his novels (and like Charlie Hebdo), it rode the French fault line between religious tolerance and cultural pride — not only in the nationalistic sense but in a bedrock secularism that led to the banning of the burqa. Houellebecq was too talented a novelist to dismiss and too impulsively contrarian to pigeonhole. He was also, at least in France, too famous to ignore — Norman Mailer with a curmudgeonly dash of Jonathan Franzen and the occasional pinch of Ann Coulter. There was always, for the French, something to love and something to hate. In 2010, he was finally awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt for the relatively tame The Map and the Territory. That said, he was also accused of plagiarizing from Wikipedia, and the novel did contain a miserable character named Michel Houellebecq, who was brutally murdered.
Soumission leaked extensively online in recent days, and Houellebecq has already peppered French media with interviews. He made many of the same talking points in a long (and rather hostile) English-language exclusive with The Paris Review this week, answering the interviewer’s accusations that he was stoking shallow controversy and scaremongering. “Yes, perhaps,” he said. “Yes, the book has a scary side. I use scare tactics.” He admitted his scenario wasn’t very realistic, but envisioned a more gradual Islamist takeover. As it happens, the threat of a takeover like that is the subject of another book, by another novelist-provocateur, Eric Zemmour — this one a work of polemic nonfiction about the decline of traditional European values that has been on the best-seller lists for months. It’s called The French Suicide.
Unlike Zemmour, Houellebecq isn’t a big fan of the West, either. “Look, the Enlightenment is dead, may it rest in peace,” he said, announcing that he’d also forsaken atheism and was now an agnostic. The whole world yearns for religion, he said, and Islam might not even be such a bad thing. If you’re a man, anyway.
That’s the weirdest thing about Houellebecq’s novel — and what Charlie Hebdo was getting at with its caricature. With Soumission, he’s out-contrarianed the contrarians. In his imagined battle of civilizations, he might side with Islam. As he told Sylvain Bourneau in The Paris Review, “the Koran turns out to be much better than I thought … The most obvious conclusion is that the jihadists are bad Muslims. Obviously, as with all religious texts, there is room for interpretation, but an honest reading will conclude that a holy war of aggression is not generally sanctioned, prayer alone is valid. So you might say I’ve changed my opinion. That’s why I don’t feel that I’m writing out of fear. I feel, rather, that we can make arrangements.”
Is he joking? It’s entirely possible. So was Charlie Hebdo when it ran an issue “edited” by the prophet Muhammad, promising “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter.” Neither the National Front nor jihadists are known for their sense of humor. Houllebecq’s publisher, Flammarion, was evacuated today, and Houllebecq was placed under police protection.