In 2015, the controversial French author Michel Houellebecq published a novel called Submission. “Controversial” is putting it mildly: Houellebecq is the bad boy of contemporary French letters—one of them anyway, in a country with a strong tradition thereof. He first gained notoriety for his 1998 novel The Elementary Particles, which was both lavishly praised by critics and widely attacked for its brutality and nihilism, especially its depictions of racism, pedophilia, and torture. His subsequent works did not exactly light up the IP department at Disney either.
On a personal level, Houellebecq himself is a living caricature of a grubby Gallic intellectual as Americans imagine the species, resembling—variously—a debauched Alfred E. Neuman or Roman Polanski’s evil twin (so you can imagine how evil that is). The British actor and theater director Simon McBurney must play him in the biopic.
Submission is set in the very near future, in which an Islamic political party has come to power in France. Cleverly positioning itself as the sane alternative to Le Pen and the National Front, and capitalizing on the lily-livered collaborationism of the left-leaning intelligentsia, the party slowly begins instituting sharia law. The novel is told from the point of view of a dissolute college professor—a Houellebecq surrogate— who makes a practice of sleeping with his female students. As he is slowly sucked into the new regime, his chief crisis is that any academic who wants to keep his job (and I do mean his; women are ejected from the workplace, Atwood-like) must become a Muslim.
As an indictment of various French vices it’s a pretty pointed piece of literature, and a sharp critique both of 20thcentury French history and of contemporary French society.
In the end—SPOILER ALERT—the sybaritic narrator follows the lead of most of his fellow faculty members and converts to Islam, at least nominally, which is all the new regime asks. Like many of his peers, he is swayed in large part by the new laws that provide him with multiple wives—some of them teenaged, and all of them subservient and chosen primarily for their sexual attractiveness—along with the promise of an endless parade of female students (albeit veiled) who are also eager to sleep with him. (In that regard it recalls the “mineshaft gap” ending of one of the greatest satires of all, Dr. Strangelove.)
As with some of Houellebecq’s previous works, there were vocal allegations of Islamophobia, but religion was not the novel’s main target. (Even before Submission the author had been tried in a French court—but acquitted—for allegedly inciting hatred toward Islam with some of his public statements.) Submission is not a sectarian—or even secular—attack on Islam, nor a xenophobic attack on France’s Arab population; it is a scathing portrait of the Vichy-like spinelessness and moral vacuousness of the French Left. (In Arabic, the word “Islam” means submission, presumably to God, although the novel’s title is an obvious double entendre about the capitulation of Western liberalism.)
Of course, in the process Houellebecq is indeed making a kind of implicit argument for reactionaryism, in which xenophobia and Islamophobia are inherent, especially in France.
To an American reader, Submission reads almost like a parody of a French novel, both in style and content. Half its pages are given over to the narrator’s discussion of meals, sex, and faculty politics. The strong stink of misogyny is undeniable, and all the more egregious for being disingenuously masked with the pretense of condemning it. The plot is thin—it might have made a good short story, had it not been padded out to book-length. Tonally, to say that it’s drenched in ennui would be an understatement. (Like how I am working some French in here? More to come.)
Despite all that, I admit to admiring it purely as a piece of art. The premise is smart and thought-provoking, and the denouement (!) is bitterly, blackly comic…..like French coffee you might say. Ahem.
Voila mon passport. Ou est le bibliotheque? Pamplemousse. Ananas. Jus d’orange. Gerard Depardieu.
Given the way contemporary France is roiled by tensions over immigration, assimilation, xenophobia, racism, religious freedom, and quite simply what it means “to be French” (see Trevor Noah’s recent post-World Cup dustup with the French ambassador to the US), not to mention Houellebecq’s own well-founded reputation as a provocateur and aging enfant terrible (ka-ching!), its not surprising that Submission was scandalous from the get-go.
But it quickly got a lot worse.
A cartoon depicting Houellebecq was on the cover of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015—the very day Submission was published—when two fundamentalist Muslims (brothers, as it happened) entered the magazine’s offices with machine guns, killing twelve and wounding eleven. The attack wasn’t specifically about the new book—Charlie Hebdo had long been a target for its lampooning of the Prophet—but neither was it the first time Houellebecq’s work had prefigured violence. A previous novel, Platform, in part about sex tourism, included a portrayal of an Islamist terrorist attack that presciently foreshadowed the Bali attack of 2002 that killed more than two hundred people.
So, yeah, Submission is a rather radioactive bit of writing when it comes to the clash of civilizations.
It’s also a very specifically French one. An Americanization of the novel—say, a Hollywood film adaptation—is hard to imagine. (Though not inconceivable.)
In America, however, the scenario Houellebecq portrays is much less likely to happen with the left than with the right.
And sadly, that is all too easy to imagine….
In the end, the triumph of the American Islamist Party was shockingly easy.
At first, no one thought the Islamists had a prayer (so to speak). It was a joke! Then again, America had encountered political movements before that were widely derided as a “joke,” only to see them triumph in truly un-funny ways. And so it proceeded, step by step, evolving from an absurdity to a possibility to an inevitability.
Sure, it took getting past some old, ingrained prejudices, but that proved surprisingly simple. And it spoke to the open-mindedness of the American people, didn’t it?
Like previous fascists, they came—as the old maxim goes—wrapped in the flag and carrying a Bible….or in their case, a Quran. (Close enough.) The American people were angry at the status quo, and hungry for change, and change was what the American Islamist Party was offering. Oh yes.
The AIP emphasized their all-Americanness, starting with their name. They shed the trappings of the Arab world and presented a star-spangled Norman Rockwell version of Americanized Islam. They stressed that Muslims—like Christians and Jews—were “People of the Book,” descended from their common forefather Abraham. They ostentatiously flaunted their patriotism, their commitment to family, and their championing of good old-fashioned values like law and order, obedience to authority, and returning women to the rightful place that God intended for them. In the wake of #MeToo, the idea of the hijab, the abaya, and even the full-blown burqa seemed like a great way to protect the weaker sex from the inherently predatory male of the species, who—God bless ‘em—just can’t help themselves, as we all know! (So who really was the “weaker” sex, the imams asked patronizingly, thinking the point flattering to women.)
But, of course, the AIP was not really promoting Americanized Islam; it was seeking an Islamicized America. For these were not milquetoast, middle of the road, casually religious folk, the equivalent of twice-a-year Presbyterians who only went to church on Christmas and Easter. No. Their strategic embrace of mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet aside, these were very much Islamists, as opposed to the more benign and tolerant mainstream defined by the adjective Islamic. The AIP were radical fundamentalists, zealots who believed in the supremacy of their faith to the violent exclusion and subjugation of all others, the same way radical Christian supremacists did.
That’s what ultimately brought the two groups together.
Indeed, many wondered—at first—how conservative American Christians could embrace a foe that they’d demonized for so long?
Well, they did it with Russia. This was no different.
The Republican Party soon saw the wisdom of partnering with the AIP. After all, their values and worldviews were very much aligned, notwithstanding the names they gave their respective gods, and what difference did that really make anyway? It was a matter of realpolitik. Of pragmatism. Of recognizing a kindred spirit. Partnering with the AIP also gave the GOP some handy cover on the tolerance front, where it had taken a bit of a drubbing over the years.
Truth be told, many fundamentalist Christians—including a healthy swath of evangelicals and born-against (the distinctions were hazy) as well as hardline right wing Catholics—had always harbored a secret admiration for the discipline, rigor, and severity of radical Islam. Talk about a group who could stay on message!
The Mormons welcomed another faith that practiced polygamy and made it look less creepy, if only by sheer numbers.
The Amish were big fans of the beards.
Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam were cool with it, of course.
Americans of more mainstream religious persuasions—traditional Christians and Muslims alike, along with Sikhs and Buddhists and Hindus, to say nothing of agnostics and atheists—were certainly alarmed by the alliance between fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, and even more so by the Republican Party’s willingness to go along. But they were—by their nature—willing to give the AIP the benefit of the doubt, cloaked as it was in the language of reasonableness, centrism, and other gift wrapping that felt in line with what we thought of as American democracy. They looked past the AIP’s more inflammatory rhetoric, choosing not to take it literally, chalking it up to campaign trail exaggeration and hyperbole. Right?
Thus the AIP slowly gained ground in the polls, impressing conservative voters with its passion and commitment and family values. They won vast support on the right as the best possible opponent of socialism, political correctness, identity politics, and elitism—all the things that had robbed America of what once made it great, in the eyes of many traditionalists.
And while the right embraced the AIP, the secular left rubbed its collective hands and wrote thoughtful pieces in The Atlantic and made the usual accommodationist noises about inclusion and diversity and tolerance. You might be able to find some of those pieces in old library archives, if you look hard enough…..in our universities where all the humanists were eventually fired—or worse—and where departments ranging from critical theory to political science to women’s studies (are you kidding me???) and even art and literature themselves were all abolished, or else rolled into Religious Studies.
Then there was the, uh, Jewish question.
Conventional wisdom had long held that messianic Christians were strong supporters of Israel only because scripture supposedly insisted that the Israelites had to reign in Jerusalem again before Christ would return. But the AIP cleverly contended that “Israelites” and even “Jews” could be translated as “Semites,” and the Arabs were Semites too (which also re-defined the common usage of the term “anti-Semitism”). And with that, the decades-long Zionist/evangelical alliance began to crumble.
Initially, most American Jews (or was it Jewish-Americans?) shared the general belief that the AIP stood not a snowball’s chance in Mecca of having any impact on US politics. When it became clear that that assumption was sadly mistaken, the Jewish community split into two distinct camps—er, I mean, factions. (Geez, all this language is fraught, n’est- ce pas?)
The first group had, apparently, read both history and the writing on the wall and di di-maued out of the Islamic Republic of the United States as fast as they could go, making aliyah to Israel, or scattering to other Jew-friendly countries with all due speed: a new diaspora.
The second group clung to the conviction that all would be well, and stayed put.
What happened to them is something we need not talk about here.
The new Islamist regime didn’t demand mass conversion—that would have been barbaric and un-American. That was the stuff of the Crusades, and the AIP was better than that (it was keen to let you know). No, the AIP was content to let Christians live as dhimmis so long as they practiced their religion quietly and discreetly.
Within those surviving Christian enclaves—and this was the really brilliant part—followers of Jesus were now authorized to incorporate elements of sharia law, like polygamy, or institutionalized domestic abuse, or even the taking of slaves. Born again types were already onboard with “an eye for an eye,” so stonings and beheadings came back into style, and man, did the crime rate decline once we started cutting off the hands of thieves! What we did to rapists…..well, you can figure that one out yourself. But then again, the very concept of “rape” was redefined. Abortion, needless to say, became strictement interdit, and divorce became all but unheard of, unless of course it was the husband who wanted one.
By that time, America’s aforementioned “mainstream” Christians found themselves in a position not much better than that of their Hebrew brothers, faced with a choice between getting considerably more devout—fast—or getting the fuck out. By contrast, Christian conservatives thrilled at these developments, once they got over their antiquated Islamophobia. In fact, even ardent Islamists recoiled in shock at the zeal with which converts from fundamentalist Christianity embraced some of the newly legal measures the Islamist theocracy brought with it.
And this was where the Islamists wound up hoisted by their own petard.
Ecumenism, which the AIP perverted to advance its cause, had opened the door not just to Christianity co-existing with Islam, but consuming it: a twin that ate its counterpart in the womb. As Christians embraced Islam and infused it with their own traditions and beliefs, it ceased to be clear where the distinction between one faith ended and the next began. Eventually, it was no longer even clear whether Islam had conquered Christian America or the other way around.
Christian conservatives—a group that used to call itself “the Moral Majority”—made the salient argument that the tenets and dogma of Islam were not the point. Not at all. There was really nothing special about Islam that distinguished it from Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or any other belief system. The names of the prayers and the sacred texts and the rituals and even the gods themselves were interchangeable as widgets.
What mattered was that the new regime stood for God and family and faith, for law and order, and for people knowing their place and obeying the rules that were laid down for them. The right finally had the patriarchal theocracy it had always wanted, its very own Gilead, and all it had to do to get it was change the windowdressing a little.
Inshallah. Praise the Lord.
Dear Man Booker Prize selection committee:
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Will also accept the Prix Goncourt.