Review: Submission by Michel Houellebecq

On the day that Michel Houellebecq’s provocative new novel Submission was released in France, two Islamists murdered eleven people at the office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The January 7, 2015 issue of Charlie Hebdo showed a caricature of Houellebecq, one of France’s most important living writers, making two predictions: “In 2015, I lose my teeth… In 2022, I do Ramadan!”

The first is a play on Houellebecq’s appearance: he looks like the product of decades of heavy drinking and smoking, an image he was sure to take advantage of when he wrote himself as a character into his 2010 novel The Map and the Territory. The second refers to the central conceit of Submission: in 2022 France elects a Muslim president and rapidly becomes Islamized.

The Islamists who attacked Charlie Hebdo are not, however, the face of Islam in Houellebecq’s fictional France. The face of Islam, rather, is Mohammed Ben Abbes, the unifying leader of a new Muslim Brotherhood party with a pan-European-Arab vision. His methods are non-violent, and his hope for social harmony in an Islamic West is sincere.

The cruder sorts of critics predicted (and some are still under the impression) that Houellebecq’s novel would be a ranting polemic against Islam. He was, after all, taken to court in 2002 on charges of “inciting racial hatred” for insulting monotheistic religion in general and Islam in particular. His new novel, however, is plainly not anti-Islamic, nor pro-Islamic for that matter, and reflects a more nuanced approach to religion.

The main character, Francois, is a middle-aged professor of literature at the Sorbonne, and he, like almost all of Houellebecq’s characters, is a thoroughly modern, irreligious person who is alone and unfulfilled. He’s had many romantic relationships with his students, none of which lasts longer than a year. Occasionally he finds escorts online or browses YouPorn.

Francois greets the news of France’s Muslim president, the result of high Muslim birthrates and a coalition against the National Front, with almost complete indifference. His only concern is that the public university where he works will now require its professors to convert to Islam. “But wasn’t that how it already was with the Catholics?” he asks. “Did you have to be baptized to teach in a Christian school? On reflection, I realized I didn’t know the first thing about it.”

Many of Francois’s male coworkers convert, taking advantage of the new polygamy laws and the high university salaries offered by Saudi backers of the new French Islamic regime. Some of his colleagues become genuinely wedded to the religion, but others just seem to like the idea of having multiple wives as young as fourteen.

In portraying the material reasons for the professors' conversions, Houellebecq digs deeper into his favorite theme: the possibilities for love, sexuality, art, and now religion in a society in which market relations have encroached onto almost every aspect of life. On those possibilities Houellebecq is decidedly pessimistic.

His characters thoroughly enjoy the range of foods, sexual experiences, and entertainment available for purchase and consumption. “I’ve always loved election night,” Francois says. “I’d go so far as to say it’s my favorite TV show, after the World Cup finals.” But the characters’ personal, or one could say spiritual, lives never approach the vibrancy of their consumer lives.

Francois’s main concern is whether to join his colleagues in converting to Islam and teaching at the university. That Francois, like the other professors, focuses mainly on what he can acquire materially from the conversion makes the reason for his eventual decision something of a mystery. But the very fact that he struggles with the decision, and that he is able to make it at allhe, the spiritually lethargic, chronically indifferent misanthrope—suggests that all is not lost on the spiritual front.

In the meantime we hear much speculation from Francois about how France and other countries got to the point where Islamic governments could win elections. He points mainly to birthrates. The model of the family that the Muslim Brotherhood begins to encourage is one where a man can have several wives, all of whom are expected to do little other than stay home and raise children.

Francois, in Houellebecqian manner, does not praise or condemn this model of a family (he comes off as a sexist and has few reservations about this for role women), but only explains why it is replacing the capitalist-era Western family in which men and women often both work and have few, if any, kids.

In spite of his pessimistic view of modern Europe, Houellebecq provocatively creates an optimistic sense of its future under Islam. He imagines the countries of Europe and parts of the Middle East joining together in a full political union. “The logical outcome,” one character explains, “would be a president of Europe elected by the people of Europe.” He imagines Europe filling its spiritual void by submitting to Islam.

Most dramatically, Francois begins to imagine his future. "I started to realize—and this was a real novelty—that life might actually have more to offer.”

But does life in Islamic France have much to offer to those outside the male intelligentsia? Houllebecq leaves it to the reader, as he does in many of his novels, to decide whether this vision of the future is palatable.