Even before his appearance on this week's cover of the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo — and before the hideous assault on the publication's offices by masked gunmen on Wednesday, which led to the deaths of at least 12 people — Michel Houellebecq was already in the eye of the storm.
Wednesday happened to also be the day the controversial novelist's sixth book appeared on shelves. "Submission" tells the story of France in the near future — 2022 — where a Muslim wins a presidential election against a far-right candidate and presides over the Islamization of French society. Persian Gulf monarchies pump in funds into new Islamic schools; teachers at the Sorbonne are compelled to convert to Islam; women slowly disappear from the workplace; polygamy becomes legally permissible.
The book can be read as a familiar fever dream of the West's Islamophobic far right. But Houellebecq is one France's most successful and translated authors, and the book has sparked an intense debate in the country ahead of its publication.
"'Submission,'" said Laurent Joffrin, editor of the left-leaning French newspaper Liberation, "will mark the date in the history of ideas on which the ideas of the extreme right made their entrance in high literature." His newspaper describes the book as "a pathetic and provocative farce" that is a sign of Houellebecq's waning talents.
In an interview with the Paris Review, Houellebecq says his work is not intended either as satire or as provocation (the latter claim will surely furrow brows). "I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic," he says.
The Islamist rise in Houellebecq's literary scenario follows more than a decade of tired Socialist rule by France's current president, François Hollande. Flagging popularity and the surge of a far-right challenger — a common feature in recent French elections — sees a motley coalition form around Mohammed Ben Abbes, of the invented Muslim Fraternity party.
France has Europe's largest Muslim community — about 5 million out of its 65 million population. But Muslims are still marginal in the country's political life, and many claim that they face widespread job discrimination and systemic racism. That hasn't curbed fears of Islamization, with polls indicating that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right, anti-immigration National Front, would win the first round of a presidential election in 2017 ahead of Socialist and center-right challengers.
Houellebecq says his book leaves "unresolved" the question of "what we are meant to be afraid of" — Islamists or nativists. Ironically, the rule of a Muslim president in his book leads to stability and an improved economic outlook for France. But the premise certainly feeds into an already overheated conversation in Europe and sketches the disturbing end point for a polarization already taking place, even if its predicted outcome is completely implausible.
This is hardly the first time the author has garnered controversy for his views regarding Islam. In 2002, French Muslim groups took him to court alleging racial incitement after he described Islam as a "stupid" religion. "I say to myself that the fact of believing in a single god is the behavior of a cretin. I can’t find another word. And the stupidest religion is, let’s face it, Islam," he said, suggesting that the Koran was, as a work of literature, inferior to the Bible.
Houellebecq was cleared of the charges and has since distanced himself from the comments. But in his interview with the Paris Review, he insists that hating a religion is not the same thing as being racist. "When I was tried for racism and acquitted, a decade ago, the prosecutor remarked, correctly, that the Muslim religion was not a racial trait," he says. "This has become even more obvious today. So we have extended the domain of 'racism' by inventing the crime of Islamophobia."
Critics of Houellebecq and other European provocateurs — as well as some of Charlie Hebdo's prior cartoons — say that damning a whole religion is far less productive than critiquing the specific pathologies within communities that lead to militancy and violence. But that's an argument that will probably have little currency in the aftermath of the grisly assault on the publication's offices.
This week's Charlie Hebdo cover caricatures Houellebecq with a sorcerer's hat. Cartoon bubbles have him saying, first, "In 2015, I'll lose my teeth." And then: "In 2022, I'll observe Ramadan." The main caption reads: "The predictions of the wise man Houellebecq."