Days before the killings of 10 journalists and two police officers on Wednesday at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo by armed men who shouted that they had avenged the Prophet Muhammad, French politicians had been debating the merits of novelist Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, “Submission” — which hit bookstores the same day as the attack and imagines a not-too-distant future with France ruled by Islamic law.
The novel was the subject of Charlie Hebdo's latest issue, which featured Houellebecq on its cover — one of the last drawings by cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier, who was killed in Wednesday’s attack.
Critics have said “Submission” plays on the rhetoric of some right-wing French politicians, who campaigned heavily on the issues of immigration and radicalized French youths who join the wars in Syria and Iraq. In the novel, Islamic Sharia law has replaced the French secular judiciary in the year 2022 and turned the country into a theocracy. Some commentators in French media have compared the premise to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) declared caliphate.
French President Francois Hollande had lent some support to the novel on Monday, saying he would read it “because it spurs debate.”
“Literature, that’s freedom, so I’ll read it without wanting to comment on the book prematurely,” he told French news broadcaster France Inter.
But in a rebuke to critics who say his administration’s policies are too complacent about Islam’s growing presence in the country, Hollande had called on the public to not let themselves be “consumed by this climate of fear and anguish.”
It is unclear whether Wednesday’s attack will stoke the worries of politicians who lost dozens of seats in France’s 2014 municipal elections to the far-right National Front party. That party also gained a strong foothold in the European Parliament later that year, raising concerns about rising xenophobia on the continent.
In Germany — where thousands of protesters under a movement called “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident” (PEGIDA) have rallied in Dresden against Islamic influence in Europe — a review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper said it hoped “Submission” would not encourage the demonstrators, who might “feel vindicated in their dull resentment.”
Houellebecq has played down complaints that his novel could stir Islamophobic passions in France and the rest of Europe, or be a gift to National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who in a speech Wednesday blamed "radical Islam" for the Charlie Hebdo attack in a speech, French newspaper La Libération reported.
“I don’t know of any example in which a novel could change the course of history,” Houellebecq told French broadcaster France 2. “Other things change history’s course — essays, the Communist Party’s manifesto, but not novels.”
Novels may or may not change history, but Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons have repeatedly influenced debate on hotbed issues. The magazine has drawn numerous threats for the publication of cartoons depicting Muhammad, and was even firebombed in 2011 after featuring such an image on its cover.
“Submission,” in addition to appearing on the cover of Charlie Hebdo’s latest edition, shares its title with Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh’s documentary on the abuse of four Muslim women. It was released in 2004, after which Van Gogh was assassinated in the Netherlands by a Dutch-Moroccan radical who took issue with the movie’s portrayal of Islam.