More than 4 in 10 French people believe Charlie Hebdo shouldn’t publish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.
Is that because they’re afraid of more bloodshed? No, they say; they feel strongly about observing the prohibition on depicting Muhammad because
… many Muslims find the images offensive.
A survey conducted by Le Journal du Dimanche, a French weekly newspaper, presented participants with this information: “Some Muslims feel attacked or injured by the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.” In the final tally of responses, 42% checked a box to indicate that the country should “consider these reactions and avoid publishing these cartoons.”
I imagine that Michel Houellebecq, perhaps the most famous French novelist of our time, read that news with something between amusement and exasperation.
You see, on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Houellebecq’s sixth novel, a dark satirical work called Soumission (Submission), hit bookstores. The story explores what happens when, less than a decade from now, a Muslim presidential candidate, the fictional Mohammed Ben Abbes, has enough popular appeal to win France’s highest office.
The Economistoffers a synopsis.
The novel, which has not yet been translated into English, is narrated by François, a literature professor at the Sorbonne, who drifts between casual sex and microwaved ready-made meals in a state of wry detachment and ennui. Then, in an imaginary France of 2022, a political earthquake shakes him out of his torpor. The two mainstream parties, on the left and the right, are eliminated in the first round of a presidential election. This leaves French voters with the choice between Marine Le Pen’s populist National Front — and the Muslim Fraternity, a new party led by Mohammed Ben Abbes. Thanks to an anti-Le Pen front, Mr. Ben Abbes is elected and thus begins Muslim rule.
After a period of disorder, France returns to a strange calm under its apparently moderate new Muslim president; and François, who fled briefly, returns to Paris. But the city, and his university, are unrecognizable. More women are veiled, and give up work to look after their menfolk (helping to bring down France’s unemployment rate). Polygamy is made legal. France embarks on a geopolitical project to merge Europe with Muslim Mediterranean states. Saudi Arabia has poured petrodollars into better pay for professors and posh apartments on the city’s left bank. And his own university has been rebranded the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne. Will François, an atheist, resist, or flee the new regime or compromise with it?
Adam Gopnik, in a long piece in yesterday’s New Yorker, expatiates on the merits of Houellebecq’s controversial new book. I’ve selected half a dozen excerpts, below. (Caution, some spoilers ahead.)
Ben Abbes’s government soon imposes a kind of relaxed Sharia law throughout France and — this is the book’s central joke and point — the French élite are cravenly eager to collaborate with the new regime, delighted not only to convert but to submit to a bracing and self-assured authoritarianism.
Houellebecq is not merely a satirist but — more unusually — a sincere satirist, genuinely saddened by the absurdities of history and the madnesses of mankind. He doesn’t “delight in depicting our follies,” as reviewers like to say; he’s made miserable by them. French reviews and American previews of “Submission” might leave one with the impression of a sardonic, teeth-baring polemic about the evils of Islam, the absurdities of feminism, the terrible demoralization of French life. In truth, the tone of the book is melancholic rather than polemical. Life makes Houellebecq blue.
In Submission, says Gopnik, Houellebecq doesn’t have it in for Muslims as much as he does for over-accommodating liberals — especially academics:
[T]he principal target of the satire is not French Islam — which is really a bystander that gets, at most, winged — but the spinelessness of the French intellectual class, including the Huysmans-loving narrator [Joris-Karl Huysmans was a prominent French 19th-century writer]. The jokes are all about how quickly the professors find excuses to do what’s asked of them by the Islamic regime, and how often they refer to the literature they study to give them license to do it. The new Islamic administration at the University of Paris allows a professor of Rimbaud studies to carry on, but on the condition that he teach Rimbaud’s conjectured conversion to Islam as an established fact. The professor is happy to do it.
The charge that Houellebecq is Islamophobic seems misplaced. He’s not Islamophobic. He’s Francophobic. The portrait of the Islamic regime is quite fond; he likes the fundamentalists’ suavity and sureness. Ben Abbes’s reform of the educational system is wholesome, and his ambitions to rebuild France are almost a form of neo-Gaullism. (He succeeds in integrating Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Turkey into the European Union, creating a power bloc greater than the American one.) The reform of education, the reinforcement of the family, even the re-domestication of women are all held up for admiration. It’s the shrugging admiration of satire, of course, but neither Ben Abbes nor his government seems meant to be seen as contemptible, the way the French who assist them certainly are.
A couple of times, and also in this podcast interview, Gopnik makes the point that Houellebecq’s isn’t a wolf-cryer per se — that the man’s novel isn’t intended as some religio-political Future Shock scenario.
Imagining that what’s happening now will keep on happening is what satirists do. It is also what simpletons do. Every huckster on television tries to sell gold by pointing to an ascending price line and insisting that it can go only ever upward. In the real world, a vector never keeps going in a straight line. It meets a countervailing force or splits in two. We never got to 1984, or to boiling Irish babies. Other forces intervened.
Enlightenment values are hardly as empty as Houellebecq pretends; there is surely more fight left in the light than people want to admit. … What liberal values have going for them is liberty and value. In the recent horror, the two Muslim victims of the two Islamic terrorists were a cop and a copy editor, and this immersion in upwardly mobile ordinariness is likely to be more typical of the Muslim future than the apocalyptic fantasy of a fundamentalist triumph. … This is not to say that Islam in France won’t continue to be problematic or that the extreme right won’t continue its rise or that the respectable republicans won’t be as fatuously self-destructive as Houellebecq imagines them to be. The next thing is just never likely to be the same thing. The fun of satire is to think what would happen if nothing happens to stop what is happening. But that’s not what happens.
By the way, charges of Islamophobia have been leveled at Houellebecq since more than a dozen years ago, says Wikipedia.
The author’s statements in interviews and from his novels led to the accusation that he was anti-Islamic. In 2002, Houellebecq faced trial on charges of racial hatred after calling Islam “the dumbest religion” in an interview about his book Platform published in the literary magazine Lire. He told a court in Paris that his words had been twisted, saying: “I have never displayed the least contempt for Muslims [but] I have as much contempt as ever for Islam.” The court acquitted him.
The English translation of Soumission should be available by the fall.