Novel Reflections on “Submission”
December 29, 2015
Michel Houellebecq’s controversial novel about France in the future provides occasion to think about the relationships between Islam, secularism, and Catholicism
James V. Schall, S.J.
“’It’s submission,’ Rediger murmured. ‘The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission. I hesitate to discuss the idea with my fellow Muslims, who might consider it sacrilegious, but for me there’s a connection between woman’s submission to man, as its described in the Story of O, and the Islamic idea of man’s submission to God.’” — Michel Houellebecq, Submission: a Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2015; translated from the French by Lorin Stein), 212.
A former student of mine sent me a copy of the French novel Submission, a satirical and pointed story set in 2022. To read a novel such as this one, it is helpful to know French, the delights of French foods, cheeses and wines, the literature of France, its religion, its geography, and its sense of style. It also helps to know the names of the streets of Paris, something of France’s academic life, and the intricacies of its mind. Reading Houellebecq’s novel, one realizes that all of the famous indications of the French life, both its virtues and its vices, are passing away, rather quickly, before one’s very eyes—not to be replaced by complete secularism, which is already in control, but by Islam.
French words for foods and clothing have been replaced by Muslim names and phrases for a quite different cuisine and garb. The burka-clad girl students no longer bear the immediate attraction of classic, more promiscuous French co-eds on the campuses and in the streets of Paris. The well-concealed Muslim girls’ charms are reserved for the harem and the inner household of the legally polygamous family now supported by well-heeled French academics and businessmen who have converted to Islam. These converts are now financed by the Muslim-controlled government and by “donations” from the Saudis to foster and secure Islam in France. The more intelligent and more powerful, in this view, simply deserve more support for larger families which, by a sort of natural selection, are said to produce superior children to the old French way.
If we are used to studying current events in the West, we often see them in an apocalyptic light. We see them in terms of Scripture, or perhaps of Benson’s The Lord of the World, as end times. The decadence of the West is seen as totally within the culture’s own internal ambiance, as if the rest of the world did not exist. It is finally judged in transcendence. It consciously rejects the revelation that, along with Greece and Rome, created the civilization known as Christendom, of which France stands almost as the heart. But since the Battle of Tours in 732, Islam has been at the gates, probing, looking for the much prolonged conquest of Europe in Allah’s name.
Houellebecq’s novel does touch on these apocalyptic issues. They barely move the souls of morally compromised academics in French universities as pictured by François, the hero of this novel, a tenured professor of literature and a world-class scholar of the 19th century writer, J. K. Huysmans. The most immediate end of the present civilization is not, directly at least, a divine intervention in history but a voluntary, democratic submission to Islam, a kind of inescapable “hell” on earth, not much less horrendous in practice than the real thing that is now so much downplayed in recent Christian thought.
This novel is a version of Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints (1973), about the invasion of the world’s poor masses suddenly descending on an unprepared and prosperous Europe. They demand their equal “rights” to such prosperity. Their ideology presumes it is acquired at the expense of the poor who really have no idea how not to be poor. They insist on keeping customs of religion and economics that never allow growth. They insist that it is an injustice. Obviously, this “invasion” is happening before our very eyes, but whether it is the invasion of the poor or the calculated invasion of Islam and its failures (or a combination of both) can be debated.
We can talk of world Islam in several ways, as Raheel Raza put it. The most fruitful one is that most Muslims “believe” in the Qur’an and its mission to subject the world to Allah; the world “ought” to be Muslim, under Muslim law. At the center are some ten to fifteen million men and women who belong to ISIS and its affiliates. These are the planners and the ones willing to sacrifice their lives (and ours) for their cause. Another forty or fifty million prefer to expand Islam by demographic growth and political means. They see that they can win elections and gradually transform governments that once opposed them.
Beyond these are probably four or five hundred million Muslims sympathetic to the cause but who do not do much actively care until they see which side is winning. Finally, there are another half billion or so who are simply concerned with their own lives and follow without much questioning the law of Islam. The “missionary” zeal of both the ISIS and the gradualists is intense and often infectious. Its root is a faith in the truth of Islamic revelation.
This novel arises from the second group, the one that sees Islam primarily as a demographic and political force that can conquer by democratic means if allowed to establish itself within democratic systems. Once there, they immediately set up their own enclaves, impose Islamic law, and work within the system to protect themselves, and then seek to gain gradual control of political and cultural centers.
The hypothesis of this novel is that, in a close election in the near future, the party of the Muslim Brotherhood will hold the balance of parliamentary power. To rule in the French system, they join forces with the Socialist Party to defeat the Nationalist Party, the one most directly concerned with the rise of Islam within France. Once elected, when it comes to which party runs which branch of government, the Muslim Brotherhood does not take Defense, or Treasury, or Social Services, but Education. They proceed to require Muslim conversions and curricula in the schools, even in the universities.
Houellebecq’s novel takes place within the sphere of the Muslim legal takeover of a French university. The French schools, while they want to retain some semblance of French tradition and international prestige, require the major offices to be in the hands of Muslim professors. To acquire them, former and future faculty are offered lucrative salaries, offices, and honors, but they have to convert. Gradually, one or another professor does this. His salary is increased; he acquires a second and third wife. The strategists are a brilliant Muslim Prime Minister and a Director of the university. The offers of salary and multiple wives tempt more and more faculty members. If someone does not choose to join Islam, he is bought off with a good pension but he no longer has any place in the system.
It can be argued that the theme of this book is not so much Islam as it is the corruption and the betrayal of the academic clerics to their commitment to truth. The hero of the novel is scholarly enough, but he has a succession of student mistresses. He is unwilling or unable to commit himself to much of anything. All through the book is a kind of nostalgia for home and family: “Once you reach a certain stage of physical decline, the only relationship that really, clearly makes sense is marriage” (150). But somehow this solution never results in responsible action on the professor’s part.
In his late forties, he sees his life as incomplete in its passing away. With the Muslim takeover of the university, he is offered a very high academic post, which finally, after some anguish, he accepts and apparently converts to Islam and its wives and salary and security. “Submission” seems somehow the only sensible alternative. “People really don’t care that much about their own death. What they really worry about, their one fixation, is how to avoid physical suffering as much as possible” (250). This view, of course, is right out of Epicurus in ancient times, and Hobbes, Bentham, and Mill in modern times.
But it is not an easy deal. He tries the Catholic route that his hero Huysmans took. Still, while he is content enough in a Belgian monastery for a while, he really does not see this path as feasible for him. Both secularism and Catholicism are rejected. The title of the book is “submission”—this is the famous notion that the world should be totally subject to Allah, that there is no room for reason or logic. All things could be otherwise. We really cause nothing. Only Allah acts. The rest is illusion. This view means that all things, politics especially, should rule in Allah’s name. Part V of this novel, on an otherwise blank page, has the following sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini: “If Islam is not political, it is nothing.”
The separation of mosque and state is a joke. Both are each other, unless corrupted by some silly notion rooted in Western Christendom about their differences. Catholicism is seen as a corruption of an original Muslim revelation. In one of the strangest misinterpretations in all of intellectual history, Christians corrupted the original Qur’an, Allah’s direct revelation. Instead of Islam being the corruption of the Old and New Testaments—which is what it is—the theory of original revelation was concocted to justify the many incoherencies and readings found in the Qur’an itself.
“For the Muslim, the real enemy—the thing they fear and hate—isn’t Catholicism. It’s secularism. It’s laicism. It’s atheist materialism. They think of Catholics as fellow believers. Catholicism is a religion of the Book. Catholics are one step away from converting to Islam—that’s the true, original Muslim view of Christianity” (125).
Islam is made manifest directly from the mind of Allah. Mohammed at best is just a messenger. This strange theory is absolutely necessary since all historic evidence contradicts its truth. Ultimately this requires a theory which, as I mentioned, allows contradictory things to be willed by Allah. This is the voluntarism that really rules the mind of Islam.
Catholics and Muslims both argue against modern secularism. Secularism, in its turn, sees itself as a way to corrupt Islam. This novel follows a curious story in which modern secularism, in the person of the French professor, with his own moral irregularities, is converted to a Muslim way of life. He acquires three or four wives and, perhaps, added concubines. He can now do legally what he did extra legem as a modern professor midst sundry consenting coeds.
In this sense, Islam’s real enemy is not secularism, but Catholicism, as they say, “rightly understood”. This novel is, in its way, the record of the ease with which a secularist professor will find Islam more congenial and “rewarding” than Catholicism, even French Catholicism of the good kind, some of which is still about.
We find many rather nice things in this book about literature and human life. “Only literature can grant you access to a spirit from beyond the grave—a more direct, a more complete, deeper access than you would have in conversation with a friend. Even in our most deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak so openly as when we face a blank page and address an unknown reader” (5). This is well-said, though perhaps more can be said for friendship. The story, including the personal story, gets us to the heart of things we are reluctant or hesitant to talk about with one another. The salvation of souls as well as minds, it might be said, includes the encounter with both Plato and Augustine, both Huysmans and Bloy, both Virgil and Dante.
We even find a sympathetic consideration of Chesterton and Belloc’s distributism. If one puts into effect the distributist ideas, the cost of government would go down, labor shortages would cease, and government would not exercise the control that it does over family, education, and law. But Islam is not really distributist and this proposal is only a quirk of a French Muslim prime minister who is guiding France to live under Islamic law.
But what in the end is the lesson of this willingness to accept Islam as the way of France—the way of the future? In one sense, it is the common materialism and decadence that both Catholics and Muslims see in the West. Catholics see it as a corruption within its own heritage, while Islam sees it as a potential threat to its own rule, even though Muslim mores and secular ones are not, on examination, so far apart. After all, one of the hopes in the West was that, if we have many Muslims come into Western countries, the relativism of the West will mitigate Islam’s fanaticism. It is more likely to increase it. But the fact is that, somehow, Islam has not allowed much to interfere with its internal control of minds and polities of the billion and a half human beings who call themselves “Muslim”.
The notion that Catholics are “one step away from converting to Islam” may have an historical basis. In the history of Islam, its conquest of once Christian lands did see gradual conversions once Islamic law was enforced over a period of time. In Islamic states one’s choice is either 1) die, 2) convert, 3) accept second-class citizenship, and 4) pay the required taxes. Only a small number of Christian remnants survived in Muslim lands. These remnants are now being killed or driven out of their ancient lands. In exile, they find themselves not recognized by modern Western governments as anything different from the Muslims also flooding Europe for often quite different reasons, one of which is no doubt the conversion of Europe to Islam.
To the tired French academic, who converts to Islam for its rewards and because he has no place else to go, “submission” seems to be both a “scientific” and the simplest cultural alternative. Submission is, after all, what Islam means; the book’s title was well-chosen. To mindlessly submit solves a lot of problems if we simply accept the Muslim law and do not worry about anything but to observe it till death. If Allah does everything, we need not worry about “doing” anything, or being at all concerned with what we do. Whatever happens, whatever it is, is Allah’s will. “Submission”, then, is not understanding or vision but all that is left to us.