At the center of Wednesday’s attack at the Paris headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is a new novel by the deeply controversial author Michel Houellebecq. This week, the novelist was featured on the illustrated cover of the paper dressed as a wizard, smoking a cigarette, and predicting: “In 2022, I do Ramadan.” Today his novel, the provocatively titled Submission, was released. Already stirring outrage in the French media, it imagines a Muslim president in France during the year 2022.
Houellebecq is France’s most decorated, despised, and translated novelist. Those familiar with him will be quick to note that he is often a bedfellow of controversy, especially when it comes to religion and Islam. In a 2002 interview with the literary publication Lire, in advance of his novel Platform, Houellebecq called Islam “the most stupid religion.” He also declared the Koran “badly written.” Soon thereafter, four organizations — the World Islamic League, the Human Rights League, and the mosques of Paris and Lyon — took Houellebecq to court for inciting religious hatred and making racial insults, while also attempting to sue Lire. They lost on both accounts. Houellebecq responded: “I deny being a racist, I have never confused Arabs and Muslims and I am indignant that certain journalists misrepresent me with words I’ve never used.”
But the case of the novel Platform is more complicated. Too often the book is dismissed as plainly racist or glossed in favor of an argument for free expression. Neither view is entirely justified. In the book, Michel — a projection or “version” of the author and not a stand-in — is prone to bigoted outbursts. Out of nowhere, while fiddling with his luggage, he admits: “I had a vision of migratory flows crisscrossing Europe like blood vessels; Muslims appeared as clots that were only slowly reabsorbed.”
On the other hand, Michel has been traumatized by a purportedly Islamic terrorist attack that murders his love (or sex) interest. In response he confesses:
I devoted myself to trying to feel hatred for Muslims. I was quite good at it, and I started to follow the international news again. Every time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver of enthusiasm at the thought that it meant one less Muslim. Yes, it was possible to live like this.
As morally and politically repugnant as this confession is, it’s clear that Houellebecq’s protagonist is wearing Islamophobia as a hair shirt: he stupidly believes that he needs this rage in order to survive his grief. It is a self-consciously escapist, fantastical hatred: a fiction. And as an author of fictions, Houellebecq is aware — if not above — the way they are used and abused.
More recently, Houellebecq appears to have shed his own atheism and disdain for religion, including Islam. In a recent interview with The Paris Review, the novelist admits that his atheism hasn’t “survived” in recent years, and, against a statement he made about the Koran thirteen years ago, he concedes:
…the Koran turns out to be much better than I thought, now that I’ve reread it—or rather, read it. The most obvious conclusion is that the jihadists are bad Muslims.
Although the new novel won’t be released in the US for some time, it’s clear that Houellebecq doesn’t consider it an affront to Islam. On the contrary, he sees it as a thought experiment meant to reflect the absence of political representation for Muslims in France:
So if a Muslim wants to vote, what’s he supposed to do? The truth is, he’s in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever. It would be wrong to say that this religion has no political consequences—it does. So does Catholicism, for that matter, even if the Catholics have been more or less marginalized. For those reasons, it seems to me, a Muslim party makes a lot of sense.
With no present English translation, it’s impossible to tell whether Houellebecq’s new novel is a skilled experiment in political modality, or a thinly veiled attack on religion disguised as a mea culpa. In either case, Houellebecq may have seriously misjudged the power of novels to affect history. When asked if Submission might reinforce the image of Islam as dangerous, he responded: “It would be impossible to talk about [Islam] more than they already do, so my book won’t have any effect.”
Much is still uncertain about the relationship between the book and the attack. Given that Submission was published only today, it is nearly impossible that its contents could have directly inspired the killings. Nor is it clear whether Houellebecq’s placement on the cover of Charlie Hebdo was meant to satirize or venerate the novelist. (On the cover, he also suggests that in 2015 he’ll lose his teeth, which could be taken either as an affectionate stab at his age or the idea that with this book he’s losing his bite.) In either case, the coincidences are mounting, and soon it may be impossible for Houellebecq to deny that the publication of his book — if not the words of the book itself — had no effect on what happened or what may come.
Update: The piece has been changed to reflect that Submission imagines a Muslim president and not a prime minister.