Thought Box

Kaleidoscope - Honesty Or Racism?

Kaleidoscope - Honesty Or Racism?

by Deepa Gahlot June 10 2016, 10:22 am Estimated Reading Time: 3 mins, 24 secs

It’s a hot topic right now—millions of refugees from Islamic countries flocking to Europe and tilting the population balance. Already, prophets of doom are predicting the end of European civilisation as we know it.

It’s surprising that French author Michel Houellebecq wrote a novel like Submission in these communally fraught times, but then he has always been provocative. According to reports, a little after the French original was released, the attack on the office of Charlie Hedbo took place that resulted in the murder of twelve people. Laurent Joffrin, editor of Libération, wrote that Submission “will mark the date in history when the ideas of the far right made a grand return to serious French literature,” and armed guards were placed at the offices of Houellebecq’s publishers.

Submission is set in 2022, and seen through the eyes of forty-four year old François, a lecturer at the New Sorbonne University and an expert on nineteenth-century author J. K. Huysmans. Francois is bored with his solitary, aimless life of routine teaching and casual seductions.

It’s election season and the political grapevine issues dire warnings. The Jewish parents of his current lover, furtively move to Israel. Then, much to the shock of the French liberal intellectuals, in an alliance with the Socialists, an Islamic party sweeps to power, with the seemingly moderate Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Ben Abbes, taking over reins of the country. Islamic law comes into force, women are veiled and pushed out of the job market. Polygamy is encouraged and generous inducements – money and multiple wives—offered to academics who convert to Islam.

The novel is both satirical and cautionary, targeting with sharp barbs both the politically naïve French natives as well as a Muslim leader with ambitions of creating a unified Europe to include Islamic countries like Morocco, Turkey and Tunisia and later Lebanon and Egypt. Francois, with his physical ailments and religious confusion, is just a pathetic gnat amidst this huge historical upheaval.

The book has divided opinion among critics in the West, many of whom found it Islamophobic. Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker, “The charge that Houellebecq is Islamophobic seems misplaced. He’s not Islamophobic. He’s Francophobic. The portrait of the Islamic regime is quite fond; he likes the fundamentalists’ suavity and sureness. Ben Abbes’s reform of the educational system is wholesome, and his ambitions to rebuild France are almost a form of neo-Gaullism. (He succeeds in integrating Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Turkey into the European Union, creating a power bloc greater than the American one.) The reform of education, the reinforcement of the family, even the re-domestication of women are all held up for admiration. It’s the shrugging admiration of satire, of course, but neither Ben Abbes nor his government seems meant to be seen as contemptible, the way the French who assist them certainly are. One of the few objects of real scorn in the book is François Bayrou, the (actual) French centrist politician whose dancing between left and right in electoral politics is legend, and who becomes Ben Abbes’s chief apologist and mouthpiece.”

Lydia Kiesling, wrote in “Submission might have been a more meaningful—if no less provocative—thought exercise had it engaged with Islam as something beyond a sterile surface upon which to project the twisted visage of France, or more accurately, of a few short but crowded centuries of French intellectual history. Houellebecq is quoted in a number of outlets as having begun the novel as a Catholic conversion tale; while the religion of revelation has changed, the preoccupations remain limited to the narrow confines of its narrator’s worldview, limited to the cultural growing pains and death struggles of European philosophical and religious movements.”

The book could be a contender for the bad sex award, but otherwise it an absorbing and discomfiting read. Mainly because it could prove to be prophetic.

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