Michel Houellebecq's new book 'Submission' was released today.

Photographer: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

Paris's Bloody Sequel to a Provocative Novel

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Michel Houellebecq couldn't have foreseen such a horribly swift real-life sequel to his latest literary provocation, the novel "Submission," available in stores today. At least 12 people died and 20 were wounded in a terrorist attack on the offices of Paris satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which had devoted its cover to the novel of France's Islamization. The terrorists are assumed to be Islamists because they shouted "Allahu akbar," and the bloodshed they caused poses the question of whether France, and Europe, should "submit," and to what, more sharply than the author could ever do.

Houellebecq has a history of antagonizing militant Islamists. He lashed out at Muslims in his 2001 novel, "Platform," in which Islamic terrorists kill the protagonist's wife. He also called Islam "the stupidest religion," words for which he was tried and acquitted, and then threatened with death, leading him to flee to Ireland -- all before 9/11. "You're saved," the writer Michel Deon reportedly told him as they watched the attack on the World Trade Center unfold.  As today's events show, he was wrong: Houellebecq is in the cross hairs again. 

Houellebecq wrote "Submissionupon returning to France from his self-imposed exile. "I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France," he told the Paris Review. 

He must have been laboring under a common misperception: French people tend to overestimate the number of Muslims in their country  -- about 5 million -- by a factor of four. Pew Research projected in 2011 that Muslims will make up 10 percent of France's population by 2030, up from 7.5 percent now. There's no way an Islamic political party -- like the fictional Muslim Fraternity described in "Submission" -- could have more than 20 percent support in the run-up to the 2022 election, forcing traditional political parties to unite with it to defeat the far-right Front National.

Still, the book is hard-hitting political fiction with a lot of real names in it -- names that have felt compelled to respond. That alone made it relevant. French President Francois Hollande, who, in the book, wins re-election but ends his political career ignored and ridiculed by all, said he would read the novel "because it gives rise to debate." Marine Le Pen, who loses to Muslim candidate Muhammad ben Abbes in the novel, said it was "fiction that could become reality" because the mainstream parties are, in her view, indeed colluding against her and allowing Islamic fundamentalism to flourish. Now, the attack on Charlie Hebdo will be inextricably linked with "Submission," though it wasn't the only French magazine to put it on its cover (Liberation's weekend edition did, too). 

The point "Submission" makes isn't so much political as cultural. It turns the integration debate on its head. Many in Europe want Muslim immigrants to merge into the host society on its terms. This is especially pronounced in France: the country has a profound shortage of mosques, and it bans wearing of Muslim face-covering scarves in public. What, the novel asks, if the French were told to integrate with the Muslims on the latter's terms? What if the traditional parties had to join a coalition with an Islamic element? And what if ordinary people had to accept some Muslim traditions as part of living in a Muslim-run society -- adopt polygamy, for example, bar women from working or convert to Islam to be able to teach school or college? Houellebecq posits that the French would submit. Why not, if unemployment among men is eliminated in the process and men could have three wives instead of resorting to prostitutes? 

Houellebecq argues in the Paris Review interview that Muslims have "no representation whatsoever" in the current political system: There is no party that speaks for their values. It's only a logical extension of that thought to suggest that, in the absence of legitimate representation, militants and terrorists take it upon themselves to speak for the large Muslim minorities in Europe. They tell their co-religionists that Muslims are being disrespected, and they set themselves up as avengers. Charlie Hebdo is generally anti-clerical, but it was only attacked when it attempted to mock Islam, as it did in a 2011 issue that featured the prophet Muhammad as "guest editor."

No wonder the European far right portrays integration as a zero-sum game, in which one side must submit to the other -- after all, isn't that what the Muslims are after? As a character in "Submission" puts it:

They do not place the economy at the center of things. For them demographics, and education, are essential. The sub-population that has the higher reproduction rate and which succeeds in transmitting its values, triumphs. In their eyes, economy, even geopolitics are just smoke and mirrors: those who control the children control the future.

It doesn't have to be that way. Europeans must accept immigrants who don't want to give up their traditions, while offering opportunities for stronger political representation. It might then be easier for most Muslims to acknowledge that Europeans, too, are entitled to their cherished traditions, such as irreverence and intellectual freedom. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net