Who does not recall the early 2015 slogan “Je suis Charlie” taking social media by storm, galvanizing the world in solidarity following the ISIS massacre of twelve cartoonists and staffers of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo? And who has not, even in a mere flash of compassion, displayed the various sad iterations of “Je suis Charlie” in subsequent months, on the heels of additional—lewder, more brazen—orgies of carnage perpetrated by votaries of ISIS? Yet, even as “Je suis Paris,” “Je suis Bruxelles,” “Je suis Beirut,” “Je suis Orlando,” “Je suis Nice” and suchlike came to define our modern times’ indignation in the face of depravity, they also illustrated puzzling indolence, impotence, disorientation and aphasia before a millenarian, apocalyptic malady that many remain ill prepared to call by name—let alone combat and maim.
Then came the July 26, 2016 slaughter of a geriatric French priest, on the altar of his church, in the Norman city of Rouen in northern France; a dreadful deed, yet one barely meriting mention, let alone drawing spates of outrage and media brouhahas accorded earlier feats of religious barbarity. Even an otherwise spunky, unvarnished, straight-talking pope would remain speechless at this horror when his pastoral duty might have required he spoke. And so, “Je suis épuisé,” “I am exhausted,” seems to have become the meme of choice; the times’ appropriate, diffident, politically correct response to an abomination otherwise better left euphemized, exorcised, placated, unnamed.
Yet it is precisely this form of resignation that leads to the victory of a radical Islamist party in the 2022 French presidential election in Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novel Soumission. In Houellebecq’s narrative, the French Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Ben Abbes clinches the presidency by upholding retrograde, misogynistic, patriarchal, archaic ultraconservative values, and squashing the right-wing National Front party in a brief “civil war” (with the help of the “progressive,” “enlightened” rabidly secular Socialist Party), transforming France and Frenchness into an unimaginable, degraded state of being.
Soumission (submission)—as both condition and religion—subsequently morphs and, in Houellebecq’s telling, “reforms” a godless France: Paris’s iconic Sorbonne soon mutates into the “Université Islamique de Paris-Sorbonne”; non-Muslim professors are compelled to convert to Islam or forcibly resign their posts; female-professors are dismissed; gender equality is abolished; polygamy is advocated and legalized; and all displays of such emblematic symbols of Frenchness as museums, cathedrals, libertine mores, provocative sartorial habits and daily porcine epicurean delights toasted with the obligatory French libations are all prohibited.
And so, Islamist rigor and zealotry and ostentatious orthopraxy become as French as—and indeed replace—Voltaire’s rationalist irreverent skepticism, Marianne’s topless Liberty Leading the People, Joan of Arc’s Christian fervor, and the definitive ode to freedom and republicanism that had been La Marseillaise of times past. “New opportunities would be lain before us” as dutiful Muslims, wrote Houellebecq in the conclusion of Soumission, in a final act of voluntary servitude; “a new, second life, would be bequeathed to us, utterly alien to the one that had come before; and we shall have no regrets.”
But Houellebecq’s novel, by his own admission, is not very realistic, its events not very likely to take place anywhere, anytime soon. Indeed, in order to dismiss his ominous vision as “the dumbest of them all,” Houellebecq’s sanctimonious detractors felt justified recalling inflammatory language that he had himself used in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks describing Islam as “la religion la plus con” (the dumbest religion of them all.)
Yet, Houellebecq’s narrative, incendiary and farfetched as it may seem, is not impossible. Still it remains a work of fiction, aimed to shock, to instigate debate, to compel people to engage in a conversation that ought to be had, on Islam, on freedom of expression, on secularism and republican values, and on an alien and alienated religion and culture that are still maladjusted, still easily offended, still ill prepared to accommodate the challenges of Western modernity, irreverence and skepticism.
Houellebecq and others who dare speak to the angst of a world troubled by Islam and stricken with aphasia are dismissed as demagogues, racists, Islamophobes—even though those critical of the indiscretions of other religions rarely warrant similar expressions of indignation in similarly colorful epithets. And so mutism, stupor and subdued anger are today some of the emotions gripping the French, dismayed by the July 26 murder of the elderly priest, the priest of the city of Joan of Arc’s martyrdom no less, the fifteenth-century “Maid of Orleans” who is still viewed in many French quarters as the “mother of the French nation.”
Save for the few sparse quickly muffled loud voices still defying sanctioned aphasia, the murder of the Rouen priest has largely been met with abdication and resignation; desperation and despair of a so-called “dialogue of cultures” gone awry; a dialogue that had been the apanage of the French Catholic Church for the past fifty years, but one met with utter failure.
And so it may be true that the West—Christendom as it were—in both its secular and religious incarnations might have failed to accommodate Islam. But the onus for this failure must also fall heavily on the shoulders of a “conservative Islam,” a “French Islam” that has still managed to remain aloof, estranged and, in the view of many non-Muslim Frenchmen, especially after the latest spate of ISIS-inspired killings, an Islam that has become more aggressive, more defiant, more impervious to dialogue and accommodation.
Yet “moderate Islam” has been equally guilty, meeting its recently surging conservative radical sibling with complacency, mutism, denial, often defensiveness and even apologia. A case in point is the response of France’s leading “moderate” Muslim, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur, telling those many still blessed with the patience to tolerate stale overused platitudes, that the killing of the Rouen priest was a “blasphemous sacrilege that goes against all the teachings of our religion.” Really? “Against all the teachings” of Islam? Is this the serious introspection and robust self-criticism that responsible Muslims are summoned to engage in these troubled times?
Likewise, secular republican France shares in the blame, smug as it had been in its dealings with a tradition and a civilization it has openly deemed uncouth, retrograde, reactionary, too religious for a seasoned republican palate defined—and refined—by a defiant disdain for archaic religious relics.
Yet, just as real as France’s—and, generally speaking, Christendom’s—failings might have been vis-à-vis Islam, so ought Islam be held responsible for what is ailing it, accountable for the depravities being committed in its name. Recognizing this reality is the first step in the direction of dialogue and healing and understanding.
Silencing critics of Islam’s flaws and dismissing them as “Islamophobes” is as deceitful and counterproductive as the term “Islamophobia” itself is defective. After all, a “phobia” is a form of “anxiety,” a “fear.” Fears and anxieties may not always be justified. But often times they are! Admitting that Islam—or at least some incarnations of it—may cause anxiety and fear is a statement of fact borne out by Islam’s checkered modern and historical legacies: it is not unreasonable; it is not a fantasy; it is not an insult; it is not an expression of hatred to call an ailing Islam to task. Those brandishing the term “Islamophobia” abusively to muzzle critics and accuse them of an unjustified “hatred” ought to use caution by opting for a different grammatical affix. “Mis” appears to be the more accurate morpheme; a prefix found in such words as “misanthrope” (a hater of humankind,) “misandrist” (a hater of mankind,) or “misogynist” (a hater of womankind.) From this, the haters of “Islamophobia” may be well served recognizing that an unjustified, unreasonable “hatred of Islam” ought to be referred to as “misislamism,” not “Islamophobia.” Otherwise, as one observer aptly put it, Islamophobia is a vacuous and meaningless term; “a word created by fascists, brandished by cowards, to manipulate morons.”
Franck Salameh is a Middle East commentator and associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Boston College. He is founding Editor-in-Chief of The Levantine Review, and author of Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon (Lexington 2010), Charles Corm: An Intellectual Biography of a Twentieth-Century Lebanese “Young Phoenician” (Lexington 2015), The Other Middle East: An Anthology of Modern Levantine Literature (Yale, 2017), and Fragments of Lives Arrested: A Memoir of Lebanon’s Jewish Community (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2018).
Image: A crow on a Muslim crescent atop the Mosquée de Paris, France. Wikimedia Commons/@Jebulon