Do France’s Intellectuals Have a Muslim Problem?

Houellebecq, ‘Charlie Hebdo,’ and the French struggle to understand how 5 million citizens fit into the Fifth Republic.


For weeks French media had been filled with sound and fury in anticipation of Wednesday’s official release of Soumission, the sixth and latest novel by Michel Houellebecq, the aging and dissipated enfant terrible of French literature. As with his earlier works, there was praise and denunciation, kudos and curses offered by pundits who had seen (but not always read) the advance copies. To be sure, the intensity of the public debate was much sharper than with his other novels, if only because of the novel’s subject: An Islamist wins the French presidential election in 2022, and his victory is followed by France’s gradual conversion to Islam.

The book’s launch took an appalling twist when armed gunmen barreled into the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday morning, Jan. 7, and murdered 10 of the magazine’s staffers, along with two policemen. A spokesman for the Paris police said the killers fired their AK-47s “indiscriminately.” It’s an odd word choice. After all, the killers had, with great discrimination and deliberation, identified the weekly’s staff as their enemies and victims. And they had done so because Charlie Hebdo shares important qualities with Houellebecq, the man who appeared on this week’s cover of the magazine.

In their often cartoonish and caustic but also often incisive work, the weekly and the novelist rarely discriminate among France’s political, ideological, and religious movements. Christians and Muslims, socialists and conservatives, environmentalists and industrialists are all knaves and hypocrites. But it is difficult to deny that both have especially fraught relationships with one religion in particular. Houellebecq believes he makes his readers laugh because he moves insults from the private realm into the public. Offering a telling example to one interviewer, he said, “’Well, you have to admit, Islam is moronic’ is something you could easily say in private.” Uttering it in public shocks, but also titillates. Like Charlie Hebdo, famous (and infamous) for antics such as cartooning the Prophet Mohammed, Houellebecq has shown a genius for breaking taboos repeatedly.

Were he asked about the meaning of Wednesday’s event, Houellebecq would probably take a drag of his cigarette and shrug. In a Reuters article related to the massacre, the reporter described the novelist as “controversial.” One might as well describe Mike Tyson as “volatile” or Ted Cruz as “vain.” Ever since the 1998 publication of his breakthrough novel, The Elementary Particles, a blunt and acerbic tale of a French scientist, his half brother, and their many, often failed, sexual forays, Houellebecq has courted controversy for the way his novels’ characters lunge and lurch after depression, drugs, and drink.

With the publication of Platform in 2001, Houellebecq became one of France’s most read and translated contemporary writers. It helped that he doubled down on his “controversial” status: Like the caricatures that cavort across the pages of Charlie Hebdo, Houellebecq caricatured our age’s travel lust with our sexual lust by creating a travel company that offers sex-tour packages to Thailand. More controversial, perhaps, was Houellebecq’s depiction of Muslim men as the most avid of the thousands of sex tourists slouching through Asia’s red-light districts. The controversy then turned toxic when, in an interview with Lire magazine, the author, who according to the interviewer was “smoking like a fireman and drinking like a fish,” shared his general view of Islam.

While Houellebecq dismissed all monotheistic religions, he asserted that “the stupidest religion, really, it’s Islam.” While the Jews at least showed “great literary talent” in the Bible, and Christianity has “all of those churches, stained windows, paintings, and sculptures,” Islam has the Quran: “When one reads it, one shudders … really shudders.” It hardly helped matters that when one of Platform’s characters reflects on the Second Intifada (then underway), he thinks, “Each time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, child or pregnant women was cut down by bullets in the Gaza Strip, I felt a shiver of enthusiasm.”

A little more than 10 years later, with a Prix Goncourt and a host of other literary awards under Houellebecq’s belt, much has changed. But much has also stayed the same for both Houellebecq and his critics. The serious reviews of Soumission note that Houellebecq’s treatment of Islam is now far more nuanced, even admiring. In an interview published last week in the Paris Review, Houellebecq insisted that the book is not a satire, but instead a stab at political fiction, one whose scenario is, if not certain, certainly plausible, a claim he has repeated. Yet, is plausibility itself a plausible rationale, given the rise of Islamophobia in France? According to the Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France, violent acts against Muslims increased 47 percent between 2012 and 2013. It is all too plausible that 2014 will prove an even better year for Islamophobia.

In Soumission, the narrator is a failed academic who devotes his solitary life to the work of the quirky French writer J.K. Huysmans, who converted to Catholicism near the end of his life. Houellebecq believes his hero, who is searching for a sense of self and purpose, doesn’t have the same option: Christianity is a spent force. Islam isn’t. This questioning reflects the ramifying debate in France over the nation’s identity. And this may just explain why French intellectuals have reacted to the book the way they have.

Houellebecq’s novel arrives as what the French call “declinism” is, paradoxically, in the ascendant. The relative decline of France’s economy, universities, cultural influence, and military prowess has unleashed a torrent of self-doubt, accompanied by self-flagellation. Indeed, for one prominent pundit, France is committing suicide. At least, this is the diagnosis of Le Figaro columnist Eric Zemmour, whose book Le Suicide Français, published last fall, currently sits at the top of Amazon France‘s list of nonfiction best-sellers.

Ever since the death of former French President Charles de Gaulle, Zemmour argues, liberalism and its train of smaller isms — feminism, communitarianism, humanitarianism — have sapped France’s moral fiber. The country has been “demasculinized,” which renders it all the more vulnerable to the 5 million or so Muslims in France. Even more disturbing than his slippery use of statistics (Le Monde quickly pointed out that Zemmour dramatically inflated the number of Muslim immigrants entering France) was the book’s tacit message: Muslims are immune to the virtues of the French Republic. Thus his misleading quotation of de Gaulle, who affirmed that the French and Arabs are like “oil and vinegar: pour them together in a bottle, shake, and they will quickly separate.” Zemmour neglected to add that de Gaulle uttered this remark in 1959 and was referring to French and Arab Algerians.

Zemmour is neither a serious historian nor a serious intellectual; he’s instead a canny pamphleteer and polemicist whose book sales seem to rise with the opprobrium of most intellectuals. Yet this is not a reason to ignore him. For the Socialist politician Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, French society is undergoing a kind of “zemmourisation,” one that credits racial and ethnic prejudices that, until recently, were limited to the extreme right. For this reason, Zemmour’s book does more than reflect the “state of French society, its fissures and contradictions,” as Le Monde claimed last October. His work is also, to paraphrase Austrian writer Karl Krauss, the disease for which it pretends to be the cure.

This week, Soumission joined Le Suicide Français at the heights of the best-seller list. Houellebecq is, for better and for worse, the brightest fixture in France’s dimming literary Pleiad. His novels, unlike Zemmour’s tracts, have an audience that reaches far beyond Paris’s Left Bank. As the book critic of Le Monde, Pierre Assouline, declared: “Outside of France, Houellebecq is the French novelist par excellence, the one who is most widely read and discussed, even if for bad reasons.”

According to Houellebecq’s critics, those bad reasons have just gotten worse. When compared with his earlier remarks about Islam, Houellebecq’s perspective has grown more nuanced, even admiring. (In his recent Paris Review interview, Houellebecq said that the Quran “turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I’ve reread it — or, rather, read it.… You might say I’ve changed my opinion.” In fact, he now doubts his earlier militant atheism and prefers the term “agnostic” to describe his beliefs. What makes Soumission so intriguing is that the novel’s narrator, an academic weary of materialism and individualism, ultimately converts to Islam not through the threat of violence, but instead through the desire to surrender.

Yet, the critics in France have so far focused not on the novel’s complexity, but instead its potential social and political consequences. Laurent Joffrin, the editor of Libération — the left-wing newspaper that offered its space to the Charlie Hebdo staff after its office was firebombed by Muslim extremists in 2011 — confessed to a deep unease after finishing Houellebecq’s latest. His discomfort had less to do with the narrative’s conclusion than the ideological conclusion readers might take away. “The novel has an obvious political resonance,” Joffrin wrote, one that marks “the eruption into serious literature of the theses of right-wing extremists.” Le Monde’s Assouline echoed this same fear. Noting that Houellebecq has always insisted that artists have the duty to be “irresponsible,” the critic wondered ironically: “What can be more irresponsible than to play with fire while the phantasm of civil war hovers over France?”

But Houellebecq does not lack supporters, most of whom are conservatives who found his earlier work salacious and nihilistic. (For the record, the author has often said that the right and left in France are equally irrelevant.) Most notably, philosopher and essayist Alain Finkielkraut rallied to the book’s defense. Applauding Houellebecq’s “genius for the significant detail” and courage not to be “intimidated by political correctness,” Finkielkraut did not find fantastic the notion of a France slowly converting to Islam. Moreover, echoing Houellebecq, Finkielkraut also found the story line to be “plausible.”

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, intellectuals across the ideological spectrum have paused the debate. On Thursday afternoon, Houellebecq’s publisher announced the suspension of his book tour too. But bookstores are prominently displaying Soumission in their windows, despite the latest events in Paris and the controversy around the book. It’s their way of echoing the slogan now held up by tens of thousands of demonstrators across France: “Nous sommes tous Charlie Hebdo.”

Photo by DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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