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When the Muslim Brotherhood Wins Power in France | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Media ID: 55340347

By Michel Houellebecq
330 pages
Paris, 2015[/inset_left]

For more than a decade novelist Michel Houellebecq has been the bete-noire of politically correct elites in France. With provocation woven into his DNA, he has angered almost everyone across the board, from left to right, so it is no surprise that his latest novel Soumission (Submission) has raised a storm of protest among the chattering classes in Paris.

Published on the day that Charlie Hebdo was attacked, the novel offers a glimpse of the malaise that has affected part of the French intellectual, political and media establishment for a decade and, in turn, encouraged those, including jihadists, who insist that Western democracy is doomed. (In its last pre-attack issue, Charlie Hebdo carried Houellebecq’s caricature on its cover.)

Initial reviews of the novel, often produced by those who hadn’t read it or at best skimmed through it, labelled it as another piece of “Islamophobia” because it envisages what an Islamist government might do to France. However, the novel could also be read as an apologia for an Islam that, having ceased to be a religion, has transmuted into a political ideology and, as such, become an alternative to the Enlightenment, pretending to save Europe from historic decline and eventual “civilizational suicide.”

soumission novel front coverThe central character in the novel is an unnamed professor of literature at the Sorbonne who specializes in the writings of J.K. Huysmans, a novelist who lived during the so-called Belle Epoque, when France was at the zenith of power and prosperity, a period that was to come to a close with the First World War and the worst carnage in European history.

Huysmans was a pessimist–realist in an age of optimistic idealism. He had a sense that the Titanic was going to hit the iceberg, but didn’t know what to do about it. All he could do was to express his love and admiration for every part of the doomed Titanic that was Europe, including the glitzy bordellos of Brussels. He was in no way prepared to jettison any fragment of a civilization that had produced the first space ever in which human beings could live in relative freedom and security. Huysmans believed that all alternatives to Enlightenment were bound to be worse.

Though he emulates Huysmans’ pessimism, the “hero” of Submission, however, does not share the 19th century novelist’s passionate love of an imperfect Europe which, despite its shortcomings, remains the best option for those who cherish human freedom.

Houellebecq’s “hero” does not regard the death of European civilization as a tragedy. In fact he insists that Europe has already committed suicide. He notes that the French, and Europeans in general, have abandoned their Christian heritage, destroyed family by legalizing abortion and gay and lesbian marriage, allowed women to get “ too cheeky” in the name of the fight against patriarchy, and turned themselves into robotic consumers. Patriotism, the professor notes, is gone because the elites are dissolving France into an amorphous European mass.

Democracy itself is a scam that allows two power-hungry camps of Right and Left to rule in alternance. At times democracy is used as an excuse for invading other nations. So, what is to be done? Houellebecq depicts Islam as a plausible, if not necessarily ideal, alternative. In any case, the little that is left of European traditions of deference for the sacred is now reserved only for Islam, which is exempted from critical scrutiny in the name of “tolerance” and “respect.” Even when Muslims do something intolerable, Europeans have to tolerate it in atonement of past colonial and imperialist sins. Victimhood is an inexhaustible capital that Muslims in Europe could profit from for generations. The fact that the killers of Charlie Hebdo staff had never even visited Algeria did not deprive them of their ancestral capital of victimhood because of French colonial presence there decades before the two killers were born in Paris. Even acts that are clearly not worthy of respect, such as female genital mutilation, must be respected in the name of multicultural understanding.

Houellebecq’s “hero” admires the erotic fable L’Histoire d’O in which the heroine achieves “absolute happiness” through absolute sexual submission to men. Houellebecq’s narrator thinks that Islam is capable of offering the same “absolute happiness” in political terms. “Islam has the merit of being an optimistic religion, content with the world as created by God,” he notes. This is in contrast with other religions. Buddhism, for example, sees the world as “dukkha” (inadequate) and life as a saga of sorrows. In Christianity, the world is a vale of tears, at least until the Second Coming of Christ.

The narrator quotes Tariq Ramadan, a grandson of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of Muslim Brotherhood, and an advisor on Islam to various European governments, as saying that the Islamic Shari’a offers an “innovative and revolutionary option for Europe.”

Far from portraying the seizure of power by the French Muslim Brotherhood as a catastrophe, as many Egyptians did in their country, Houellebecq’s narrator sees it as an opportunity for a new departure for Europe. Mohammed ben Abbes, the Obama-like Muslim politician who becomes president is a graduate of Polytechnique, France’s most prestigious school and “a moderate” with a vision to revive the Roman Empire under the banner of Islam. His supporters call him the Islamic Augustus, after the great pre-Christian Roman Emperor.

Under Islamic rule, all, including professors, who covert to Islam, even if they don’t genuinely mean it, are given full opportunity for advancement plus higher salaries. Male professors are helped to acquire up to four wives, recruited from among their female students.

Houellebecq’s narrator also recalls that many illustrious French figures, including the poet Arthur Rimbaud, the philosopher René Guénon, the essayist Michel Chodkiewicz, and the choreographer Maurice Bejart converted to Islam because European Enlightenment no longer satisfied them.

Contemplating the changes that Islamist rule could bring to France, the first thing that Houellebecq’s narrator notices is the backside of a black girl, “beautifully sculpted in her tight jeans,” which is bound to disappear as women are pushed into purdah. The narrator is tempted by a return of a patriarchy that might put an end to his serial, and always unhappy, sexual experiences with a string of female students. Each time, the woman ends up abandoning him with a terse “I have met someone.” “Am I not someone?” the narrator laments when this happens. The liberated Western woman, insisting on equality with men, is a veritable curse to Houellebecq’s narrator. She could be as promiscuous as men, does not need men for financial support because she works, and could come out with pseudo-psychological utterances such as “I still love you but am no longer in love with you!” Under Islamist rule, however, women are kept in a state of perpetual childhood devoted to the happiness of fathers, husbands and, when they become mothers, sons. They don’t ask for a share of political power and economic wealth and are content with gifts of negligees and baubles.

Houellebecq’s “hero” is as much a caricature of Huysmans as Louis Bonaparte was of his uncle. It is, of course, possible to read Submission as an exercise in tongue-in-cheek provocation. The trouble is that the self-loathing it portrays is real. Many Frenchmen see their society as drifting in uncertain waters without an anchor. They are concerned by increasingly powerless elected governments, distant bureaucrats who intervene in every aspect of people’s lives, and an economic system that promises more and more but delivers less and less. Advocates of the view that the West is in “decline” claim that Europeans no longer believe in anything and are thus doomed to lose the fight against home grown Islamists who passionately believe in the little they know of Islam.

The novel partly answers the question that many French are asking these days: What do jihadists want? The answer is that they don’t want anything in particular because they want everything. They want to seize control of your life and dictate its every aspect to the last detail. In exchange they offer your security and a share of whatever cake there may remain. Houellebecq’s novel ends without its hero specifically accepting the bargain, although he clearly tilts towards doing so. In other words, the French, even seven years from now (the novel is set in 2022), still have a choice. My guess is that the overwhelming majority of the French will not feel the same temptation felt by Houellebecq’s narrator.