Could Houellebecq’s World Really Happen?

The French author Michel Houellebecq, long a friend of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, published his latest book—about an Islamist takeover of France—the same day the satirists were killed by ISIS terrorists. What Submission can teach us about the future of Europe.

“Life is painful and disappointing,” Michel Houellebecq wrote in his first book-length work, and it has more or less remained his mantra ever since. One of Europe’s bestselling and most controversial novelists, Houellebecq has made a career out of viciously satirical assaults on modern Europe in such works as WhateverThe Elementary ParticlesPlatform, and The Possibility of an Island, usually with the strong conviction that Western civilization is now in its twilight years, already in the midst of its inevitable collapse.

Now, however, he is not alone in this assessment. With November’s brutal terrorist slaughter in Paris, some of Europe’s most respected names have come forth to declare Houellebecq’s thesis essentially correct. Faced with the looming specter of radical Islamic terrorism, a massive refugee crisis, rising crime and civil disorder, and uncontrolled immigration and the clash of civilizations that seems to come with it, some believe Europe is already teetering on the brink. Following the Paris attacks, the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson seemed to sum up the prevailing mood. “I am…going to tell you,” he wrote in The Boston Globe, “that this is exactly how civilizations fall.”

It is almost uncannily appropriate that, with the publication of his latest novel Submission, a dystopian tale of the takeover of Europe by radical Islam, Houellebecq should find himself in the center of this maelstrom. In fact, by an inexplicable confluence of events, Submission was published on precisely the same day that the editorial staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was massacred in what now seems to have been a dress rehearsal for the Paris attacks. Houellebecq was on the cover of that week’s issue; one of his friends was among the dead.

But this was hardly the first time Houellebecq had found his life entangled in the issue of radical Islam. His portrayal of Muslims, immigration, and European race relations have long been among the most controversial aspects of his work, to the extent that many have compared him to the famously anti-Semitic French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Platform ends with a terrorist attack committed by Muslim fanatics, and soon after its publication, Houellebecq ran into serious trouble when he referred to Islam as “the stupidest religion.” France’s leading Muslim newspaper put him on the cover with the headline “This Man Hates You,” and the writer was eventually put on trial for racist defamation. Houellebecq won by arguing that he finds all religions equally stupid, but he was nonetheless forced to retain a team of bodyguards. The threats to his life have only gotten worse, and after the Hebdo massacre he fled Paris for an undisclosed location.

Houellebecq’s latest is no exception to his previous provocations. Indeed, it goes much further than any of its predecessors. In Submission, Houellebecq confronts the threat of radical Islam directly and prophesizes its eventual conquest of Europe. But this is not a conquest by force of arms, and unlike more hysterical predictions of the same kind, Houellebecq’s novel is so disturbing because its prophecies seem just plausible enough. This, one feels while reading it, is how it might actually happen.

Submission is set in the France of 2022. Civil unrest and economic discontent are threatening to split the country apart, as political and religious divisions become increasingly unmanageable. “For a long time France, like all the other countries of Western Europe, had been drifting toward civil war,” Houellebecq writes. In the midst of this domestic upheaval, Marine Le Pen’s far-Right nativist party, the National Front, seems set for victory in the upcoming elections. The centrist parties—the Gaullist UMP on the Right and the Socialists on the Left—appear unable to stop her. But then comes the sudden and precipitous rise of the “Muslim Brotherhood party,” an ostensibly moderate Islamist party led by a charismatic and canny politician named Muhammad Ben Abbes. In a desperate move to block the National Front, the centrist parties join with the Muslim Brotherhood, making Ben Abbes president of France.

All of this is observed by one of Houellebecq’s typical protagonists, a professor of literature at the Sorbonne named François who is unmarried, disillusioned, and suffering from the existential boredom the French have canonized as ennui. At first, he is relatively indifferent to the rise of the Brotherhood, preferring to contemplate the work of J.K. Huysmans, a 19th-century decadent writer who eventually embraced Catholicism. For the most part, he drifts through life, indifferent to others and the outside world, given to musings like “Should I just die? The decision struck me as premature.” He is so alienated that he initially fails to notice his mother’s death, and when he finds out, cannot be bothered to feel much of anything about it. For the most part, the upheavals of France seem unable to touch him.

But quickly, things begin to change. In exchange for his coalition with the centrist parties, Ben Abbes has demanded control of the Education Ministry. Almost instantly, the Sorbonne becomes an Islamic university: Israeli scholars are boycotted, Jewish student unions are abolished, female teachers and administrators are summarily dismissed, female students appear dressed in burkas, a new system of Muslim education is created and given preference, secular studies are starved of money and prestige, a star and crescent appears over the gates of the university, Saudi Arabia pours money into the scheme, and anyone who wants to advance academically must convert to Islam.

Houellebecq’s novel is so disturbing because its prophecies seem just plausible enough. This, one feels while reading it, is how it might actually happen.

These changes are reflected in the larger world: Women are pushed out of the workforce, thereby “solving” the unemployment problem; Muslim street violence suddenly disappears; people embrace Ben Abbes’ attempt to “restore the centrality, the dignity, of the family as the building block of society”; ambitious professionals begin happily converting to Islam, and men find the prospect of polygamous marriage to young girls particularly attractive. Quickly, Muslim parties begin to rise to power in other European countries. People begin to adapt themselves to the new reality. “With Islam, I think, the time has come for an accommodation, for an alliance,” a former intelligence officer tells François. Indeed, in one of Houellebecq’s typical ironic twists, France seems to like many of these changes.

But it quickly becomes clear that Ben Abbes’ ambitions go well beyond France itself. He has a megalomaniacal vision of a Europe united with the Muslim world. He begins to lead an expansion of the EU to include the Muslim countries of North Africa and then the Middle East, forming a “Eurabia” that constitutes, some believe, a renewed Roman Empire. By the end of the book, it seems clear that Europe is well on its way to becoming an Islamic continent.

This process is personified, for François, by Robert Rediger, the president of the new Islamic University of the Sorbonne. He is a former Right-wing nativist who changed sides by converting to Islam. As a result, his career advances by leaps and bounds, and he enjoys arranged marriages to a 40-year-old woman, who cooks and cleans for him, and a 15-year-old “for whatever else.” In the book’s quiet but sinister climax, Rediger asks François to return to the Sorbonne he has abandoned and convert to Islam. He gives him a short book he has written extolling the religion’s virtues; tempts him with the prospect of multiple wives, saying “For me there’s a connection between woman’s submission to man…and the Islamic idea of man’s submission to God”; justifies conversion by recourse to secular theories like Darwinism, the post-modernist rejection of humanism, environmentalism, and even the modern preference for organic food; and portrays European society as a suicidal civilization that only Islam can save. Islam, he contends, is destined for world domination, and François should be a part of it. And, of course, there is the example of Rediger’s own worldly success. By the end of the book, Ben Abbes has made him foreign minister, tasked with implementing the unification of Europe and the Islamic world.

As for François himself, he seems to be Houellebecq’s personification of a decadent and enervated Europe. He is content with going nowhere in life; sleeps with his students without, for the most part, any emotional involvement; sees a dead victim of France’s violent unrest and feels nothing; frequents prostitutes for sexual release but seems incapable of pleasure; and poisons himself by chain-smoking and excessive drinking.

Yet there is something in François that yearns, in a sense, to become human again. Over the course of the book, he makes two attempts to do so. First, he seeks spiritual renewal by traveling to Ligugé Abbey, the “oldest monastery in the West,” where Huysmans rejected decadence and returned to Catholicism. The monks are pleasant and the accommodations satisfactory, but François is driven half-mad because he cannot smoke in his room. He quickly escapes.

The second attempt is through something like love. In this case, it is with a young Jewish woman named Myriam. She holds out, in a sense, the prospect of belonging. When he visits her family, François realizes, “They were a tribe, a close-knit family tribe, and as I thought back on my own life, it was so unlike anything I’d ever known that I almost broke down in sobs.”

But Myriam is a casualty of the Islamic takeover. Ben Abbes, put simply, has no time for the Jews. “What would really make him happy,” says the intelligence officer, “is if they left France on their own and emigrated to Israel.”

And this seems to be precisely what the Jews are doing. François notices that the kosher section of his local supermarket has suddenly disappeared, and it seems the Jews are following suit. Myriam’s family, convinced the new Islamic regime will be brutally anti-Semitic, makes aliyah, and she quickly follows. As François observes, “There was nothing else she could do.” It seems that a mass exodus is underway, and the Jews are, in effect, being ethnically cleansed, something that, given recent events, must testify once again to Houellebecq’s prescience.

A mural of Michel Houellebecq, Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, France. Photo: Thierry Ehrmann / flickr

Yet, in Israel, Myriam finds something François cannot—that sense of belonging over which he wept. In the midst of a wave of terrorism, she writes to François, “It’s hard, but I know why I’m here,” which, François admits, “was more than I could say.” And in a particularly telling moment, François seems to despair of ever escaping his empty life. There is, he tells Myriam, “No Israel for me.” Unlike her, he has nowhere else to go.

In the end, of course, François takes the only path open to him. In the face of Rediger’s temptations, “I started to realize—and this was a real novelty—that life might actually have more to offer.” He realizes that his conversion is inevitable, if only because it represents an antidote to a life of permanent emptiness. As he contemplates the moment he will submit to Islam, he says, “I would have nothing to mourn.”

Neither, Houellebecq seems to imply, will Europe.

Submission is a book destined for fame well beyond any considerations as to its quality. Its ideas are so strong and so bitterly controversial that it will be counted as a significant work despite any aesthetic considerations. And it is important to note that it does have flaws: It is too short and often feels undercooked, as if its epic ideas have not been thoroughly explored. It is also noticeably didactic, with characters spinning off into long monologues that ram home the book’s political points but express little in the way of character.

But it is clear that absolutely none of this matters. The issues raised by Submission are too pressing, too current, and too daring to bother with anything other than a single question: Does Submission make its case?

In some ways, no. It is, after all, a satire, so its predictions are often so over the top as to become simply absurd. At one point, for example, current French Prime Minister Manuel Valls becomes an ally of Ben Abbes. Given Valls’ outspoken opposition to everything radical Islam represents, this seems frankly impossible. The French, moreover, may be decadent, but they have in some sense always been decadent, and it seems unlikely that the majority would submit themselves to a faith as censorious, repressed, and puritanical as radical Islam. Indeed, the French government’s response to November’s terror attacks, which has been notably ferocious in its intensity, would seem to disprove Houellebecq’s thesis that French society is too weak to defy theocracy.

Nonetheless, it must be said that if there is a plausible scenario for an Islamic takeover of Europe, than Submission is it. In particular, the book is surprisingly sophisticated politically, and shows an understanding of how civilizations fall or undergo sudden revolutions that have very real historical precedents.

If there is a plausible scenario for an Islamic takeover of Europe, than Submission is it.

The first, it must be said, is the rise of Nazism. The Weimar Republic was, in many ways, as decadent as today’s France, yet it submitted itself to one of the most horrific forms of totalitarianism with surprising ease. Like Ben Abbes, Hitler came to power through a backroom political maneuver despite facing more popular opponents. Once there, he seized absolute power through shrewd maneuvering rather than armed force. In particular, by demanding control of a single ministry—the Ministry of the Interior, which gave him control over the police, allowing him to destroy his opponents and impose one-party rule. In Ben Abbes’ case, the ministry in question is that of education, allowing him to favor a system of Muslim schooling that readies the next generation for conversion. As one character says, “If you control the children, you control the future.” And like Ben Abbes, Hitler leveraged his control over street violence and civil unrest to blackmail his way to power, placed strong emphasis on traditional values like the family, offered women submission and men the dark pleasures of domination, and sought to make Germany into a continent-spanning empire.

The second parallel is more benign but, perhaps, more accurate: The rise of Christianity. Like Houellebecq’s dying France, Rome at the time of Christianity’s birth was enervated, decadent, corrupted, and politically moribund. Its pagan religion was spiritually exhausted. In the face of this, Christianity offered religious renewal, the blessings of a repressive but nonetheless stable way of life, the imperatives of “faith, hope, and charity” in the face of a brutal and unforgiving world, and most importantly, a sense of belonging and community in an atomized society. The parallel to today’s Europe is unmistakable.

Moreover, Christianity did not, in the end, have to conquer Rome by the sword. Like Ben Abbes’s Islam, it required only slow but steady growth until it reached as high as Emperor Constantine. Once converted, Constantine abandoned the pagan priests and temples, and favored the church with money, prestige, and power. Conversion became a means of advancement and success. In a few centuries, Rome was Christian. And, it must be noted, this was both unprecedented and entirely unexpected. No one in the age of the Antonines could have predicted that a small messianic cult from an imperial backwater could, in a relatively short time, dominate the entire Roman Empire. This simple and indisputable historical fact makes Houellebecq’s scenario seem more credible than it might initially appear.

A still from the film The Kidnapping Of Michel Houellebecq. Photo: Cinema City / flickr

Equally credible is Houellebecq’s prediction that the people of France might not find Islamic rule all that bad. Indeed, he posits that, while the political Left would support Ben Abbes out of simple dedication to multiculturalism, the Right might find him equally attractive. With its legitimization of reactionary and regressive values, radical Islam would have a great deal to offer the Right. “When it came to rejecting atheism and humanism, or the necessary submission of women, or the return of patriarchy,” he writes, Islam and the Right “were fighting exactly the same fight.”

But it seems clear that Houellebecq believes Islam’s great strength stems from Europe’s lack of any values that might counter its appeal. Islam, he seems to think, will be an antidote to the nihilism of the post-modern age. It will give Europeans something to believe in and, however repressive it might be, they will prefer this to believing in nothing. Like Huysmans, they will find decadence untenable, and ultimately conclude that God is indeed great.

This is why, in the end, Houellebecq’s book succeeds. It is plausible because it is not a “barbarians at the gate” scenario. Islam will take over slowly and through peaceful means. It will succeed because it offers Europeans things they need, but can no longer find in their own civilization. Europe will fall, but it will fall with a whimper and not a bang.

It only remains, then, to wonder what Houellebecq wants us to take away from this. Should we view his dark tale as a satire, an outlandish provocation that forces us to admit to thoughts we might prefer to ignore? Or is it a genuine attempt at prophecy, a vision of things to come?

And answer might be found in one of Submission’s predecessors. The work with which it shares the greatest kinship seems to be George Orwell’s 1984. They are both imaginative dystopias, exaggerations and extrapolations of current trends, positing a terrifying future that may or may not come to pass.

And perhaps Houellebecq’s deepest motives can be summed up in the missive issued by Orwell’s publisher: “The moral to be drawn from this dangerous nightmare situation is a simple one: Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.”

So we are left—with the carnage and horror of recent events fresh in our minds—to wonder if Houellebecq’s nightmare scenario will happen. The mass conversion of Europe is, of course, all but impossible. But there are other forms of submission. Europe may prostrate itself politically before radical Islam, cease its fight against it, and assent to its demands. Europe still has no idea what to do with its deluge of refugees; it is presiding over an exodus of its Jews; it has all but made its peace with rising crime and civil violence; and it is by no means clear that it will be able to bear the cost of a serious battle against radical Islam within and without.

It must be said that, at the moment, we do not know if Houellebecq’s Europe will let it happen. It depends on them.

Banner Photo: Evgeny Davydov / Wikimedia Could Houellebecq’s World Really Happen? / Benjamin Kerstein

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