On January 7, Michel Houellebecq published Submission, a novel about the election of an Islamic political party to the French presidency in the near future. During his publicity tour for the novel, Houellebecq was interviewed by the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a magazine known for its irreverence and insistence on lambasting mainstream religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
On January 7, Houellebecq also appeared on the cover of the publication caricatured as a dissolute sage predicting, ‘In 2022, I’ll do Ramadan.’ On the same day two gunmen, both radicalised Muslims, forced their way into the Charlie Hebdo offices. Over the last few weeks, Western media has been scrambling to understand and process the ensuing events and to come to terms with the unfolding tragedy.
The main protagonist of Submission is a Professor of Literature at the Sorbonne University in Paris; for Houellebecq, this institution is synonymous with humanism, a secular ideology which he believes replaced religion in the West over the course of the 20th Century. The Sorbonne that Houellebecq depicts is tired, indifferent and decadent and its lazy Professors occupy their ample free time by sleeping with students. With the humanities, and thus humanism, in ruins, Houellebecq depicts a society in a state of ideological and spiritual torpor. Rather than attacking Islam or Theism in general, Houellebecq’s book attacks the West’s intolerant and dysfunctional ‘secularism’ as well as the liberal Left’s failure to counterbalance the domination of free-market capitalism.
These issues are difficult and contentious, but to avoid them in favour of political correctness is counter-productive. In Submission Houellebecq suggests that organised religion, the entrenchment of patriarchal values and the establishment of state capitalism are the solution to Europe’s problems. So the controversy comes from the fact that he is challenging the West’s fundamental value systems, which is something that the mainstream media often fail to treat seriously or even acknowledge.
Throughout his career Houellebecq has dealt with the atomisation of society through consumerism, individualism and the degeneration of the family unit; in his novels he depicts a society of isolated, despairing individuals who vacillate between depression and hedonistic elation. In Submission, somewhat reductively and over simplistically, Houellebecq uses Islam as a cure-all for the West’s problems.
Following the attacks in Paris, the public, and eventually the mainstream media, responded with the refrain “Je Suis Charlie”- I am Charlie. This is a laudable display of compassion and solidarity, a reassertion of the values of freedom of expression and humanism in general. Charlie also stands for the power and importance of satire, humour, mockery and cynicism.
However, as renowned cultural theorists such as Peter Sloterdijk and Slavoj Žižek have noted, cynical laughter, rather than being an emancipatory force, can be viewed as ‘part of the game’. Not taking the dominant ideology seriously can reinforce its power and undermine the possibility of a legitimate opposition. If we take these recent terrorist attacks to be a manifestation of profound social and ideological problems in France and the West in general, to respond with “Je Suis Charlie” could be read as a kind of denial, a refusal to engage with the underlying issues. Both manifestations are remarkable, the Jihadists for their pathological and dysfunctional ‘faith’ and the antithetical Charlie response, for its ironic distance and its atheism.
This isn’t the first time that Houellebecq has been at the heart of a reactionary media furore that was overshadowed by a shocking terrorist attack. In 2001 he released Platform, a novel which focuses on sexual tourism in Thailand. It is a Houellebecqian tale of decadence as the West outsources its toxic social and ideological issues to less developed countries. The novel ends with a terrorist attack by Jihadists on a Thai sex resort that kills the protagonist’s partner, leaving his life in ruins.
The resulting racial hatred voiced by this character resulted in many threats on Houellebecq’s life and he was eventually taken to court on charges of racism. The first day of the trial took place on the September 5 2001: six days later the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
Houellebecq was acquitted and the story quickly forgotten amidst the subsequent waves of popular anti-Islamic sentiment. In my opinion, the remarkable coincidences surrounding Platform and Submission only serve to demonstrate the prescience of Houellebecq’s writing. These novels are not simply titillating pulp thrillers which exploit latent racism, they are also incisive comments on the ills of the West.
The mainstream media often purports to be outraged by books like Submission on the grounds that its ideas compromise the democratic and human rights of the individual; but in reality this outrage only obscures the issues at hand whilst serving the media’s financial interests. With Submission Houellebecq uses the fears that Western polite society cannot acknowledge, he is playing devil’s advocate. The fact that Submission, which is ultimately a mediocre political thriller, could cause such a media furore says more about the West’s ideological insecurity than it does about Islam.
The media’s branding of Houellebecq as an Islamophobe is a startling example of denial, a desire to perpetuate a dysfunctional system and a refusal to actively engage with the problematic social, economic and political issues that underpin terrorist attacks. A refusal to see that Submission is a novel about Europe’s wayward humanism, its ideological torpor and political indolence is a demonstration of the West in denial. If we fail to engage meaningfully with these issues, we are failing to serve the memory of those who tragically lost their lives in Paris last week.
James Bray is a final year PhD student at the Univeristy of Aberdeen and writes in a personal capacity.