The attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that became infamous for its critical positions against Islam and the Muhammad cartoons from previous years (and whose latest cover was directly inspired by Houellebecq's writings), could also have a connection to Houellebecq's new book, where he describes a fictitious scenario of the Islamisation of France.
France, the year 2022. The crescent shines over Paris, and the green flag of Islam floats atop the Elysee Palace. France has just elected its first Muslim president, Mohammed ben Abbes. The new head of state decides to abolish the secular republic, and build an Islamic theocratic state, where polygamy is legalised, and men have all the power. Women are required to wear burqas and have no right to work or study, the Sorbonne is turned into an Islamic university, all professors there being obliged to accept Islam.
Just a fictional story or a peek into the future? The author seems to genuinely believe that such a far-fetched scenario is actually possible, even if it does not happen so soon as his book claims.
Some years ago, the world-famous writer got the high French literary award Goncourt, and the critics have never stopped calling him a highly controversial, even scandalous author ever since. His brand new book Submission only comes to confirm that. It bears an explosive message, which sounds as if it is taken directly from the rhetoric of the far-right Front National, which is now being echoed in Germany as well: "the West is threatened with Islamisation".
The French League against Racism and Anti-Semitism has warned that Houellebecq is playing with people's collective fears. They have called his books "the greatest present that Marine Le Pen could have received". What they mean is the political intrigue in the book: in order to stop FN and Le Pen from taking over the country, the mainstream leftist and centre-right parties collude to deny her the presidency in favour of the Muslim candidate, thus taking the responsibility for what happens afterwards. His critics believe that Houellebecq is settling scores with real French politicians and an entire political caste which in his view has failed to unite society.
French president Francois Hollande has distanced himself from Houellebecq. He believes his books are not some sort of literature bravery, but merely a regurgitation of old populist cliches. Because there have always been people who have praised the decadent and retrograde, and have dwelt in a permanent sense of hopeless pessimism. Houellebecq himself denies the accusation that he is aiming to fuel people's prejudices. The bad boy of French literature does not seem to believe that he merely plays the role of a professional provocateur. He is convinced that Marine Le Pen would not draw any benefits from his books, since she has been doing quite well in recent times, anyway.
Houellebecq's book, as well as in previous cases, has caused very polarised reactions. Some of the critics call it daring, funny, even a sarcastic satire of today's French society. Others call it an Islamophobic lampoon, solely designed to advocate the ideas of the far-right. The philosopher Malek Chebel says that Houellebecq uses his talent to fuel the fears of Islam, and exactly because he is a great writer, he should have more responsibility in that respect.
His books will probably affect the way the French people perceive the Islamic community in their country, along with yesterday's dreadful attack of course. There is a sense among the Muslim community that they are being branded and stigmatised, and used as a scapegoat for all of France's troubles. The economic crisis could naturally cause a crisis of values, even a moral crisis. And some demagogues in politics would be sure to enjoy taking benefit of this in order to sow fear and have political gains as a result. Unfortunately, Houellebecq's books tend to ultimately drive the point in the same direction.
Whether Submission is a painful call against Islam, or merely a social and political snapshot of the French society, Houellebecq himself will not tell. The protagonist in his latest book, a man called Francois, also finds it hard to define himself. He acknowledges that Islam has had both an attractive and repulsive effect on him, which can be quite confusing for the reader as well. This relativism affects both the character and the author, who has said that he neither supports nor rejects his protagonist, but would rather allow the reader to decide for themselves. Let us hope that he will not be massacred by some extremist lunatic in response to his writings, because these are points to be made and openly discussed, as opposed to being tackled with machine-guns and/or self-censorship.
Update: The much dreaded exchange of violence may have already begun.