Soumission (Submission), Michel Houellebecq’s new novel about a peaceful, Islamist conquest of France, depicts a scenario that haunts the European imagination. It quickly became this year’s number-one bestseller in both France and Germany.
Submission is set in 2022, when the amiable Mohammed Ben Abbes, who has “a kindly look of a neighborhood grocer,” wins a runoff election against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. France is in dire straits, with Salafists and nativists fighting for control of the streets. France’s republican political parties back Abbes to restore order and to keep Le Pen out of power. Abbes quickly moves to implement a soft version of shari‘a law, and he is immensely popular. He wins the support of business leaders who like his pro-growth economic policies, of Catholic leaders who share his conservative social views, and of women who are tired of the exploitative sexual marketplace.
Abbes abolishes public schools for children over twelve years old, and he slashes welfare spending by 85 percent. This gives him the revenue to offer family subsidies to mothers who leave the workplace. “What could be more beautiful,” Abbes said, “than to see welfare where it belonged, in the warm setting of the nuclear family.” Unemployed young men take jobs vacated by women, women veil and wear baggy clothing, and crime plummets. Men find the new polygamous family arrangements, with their domesticated wives, deeply satisfying. The only vocal dissenters in this new system are Salafists, who want a harsher version of shari‘a law.
The Failure of French Secular Republicanism
The protagonist in Submission is François, a man who represents the exhaustion of French secular republicanism. François is a forty-four-year-old literature professor at the Sorbonne who studies the writings of the nineteenth-century novelist, JK Huysmans. François is indifferent to his students and has no friends. He lives alone in a high-rise apartment complex, and his life centers on alcohol, television, pornography, and microwave dinners. Every year, François seduces a student and starts a relationship, which invariably ends when the school year ends.
As Abbes consolidates his power, the Sorbonne replaces its president—a gender studies professor with “broad shoulders” and a “gray crew cut”—with Robert Rediger, a Nietzsche scholar who converts to Islam and writes a best-selling defense of his new faith. Female professors receive early retirement with full pensions. Male professors are given the choice of converting to Islam or retiring. One of François’s colleagues, a professor of Rimbaud studies, keeps his job on the condition that he presents as fact the far-fetched idea that Rimbaud converted to Islam. A gilded star and crescent now adorn the Sorbonne’s gate, and verses from the Qur’an decorate university offices. The Sorbonne, François muses, has reverted to its medieval roots, when theology reigned over other disciplines.
François’s twenty-two-year-old Jewish girlfriend, Myriam, tells him that she and her parents are leaving France for Israel. Since Abbes’s election, Myriam’s parents have refused to leave their apartment. “When a Muslim party comes to power, it is never good for Jews,” Myriam says. François thinks, “There is no Israel for me.”
But things look up for François. First, the Sorbonne asks François to edit a new edition of Huysmans. Then Robert Rediger invites François to dinner at his palatial new home. As François waits for Rediger in the foyer, he notices a fifteen-year-old girl in a Hello Kitty T-shirt who covers her face and runs away when she sees him. It is Aïcha, Rediger’s new wife, his third. “She’ll be very embarrassed that you saw her without her veil,” Rediger says. Later, François meets Rediger’s first wife, Malika, a plump forty-year-old woman with a kind face, who serves the pastries. François thinks wistfully, “a forty-year-old wife for cooking, a fifteen-year-old for whatever else.”
Rediger would like François to return to teaching, but he needs to convert him first. Rediger makes a case that liberal individualism has turned European countries into “bodies without a soul—zombies.” By attacking the ultimate social structure, the family, and thus the birth rate, French republicanism had signed its own death warrant. Christianity, a feminine religion that has lost its ability to oppose moral decadence, is powerless to save Europe. Only the more masculine Islam can save the moribund continent.
Rediger argues that submission, the original meaning of “al-Islam,” is the summit of human happiness—the submission of women to men, and the submission of men to God. As a literature professor, François would especially appreciate the power of the Qur’an, a “mystical poem of praise” that can only be recited in Arabic because it starts with the idea that “sound and sense can be made one, and so can speak to the world.” Rediger promises François that if he accepts Islam, he will get a huge pay raise. But for François, sex seals the deal. Rediger will find him “three wives without difficulty,” chosen by an experienced matchmaker.
When the French edition of Soumission first appeared in January 2015, France’s Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, immediately denounced the book as intolerant, hateful, and Islamophobic. But in Submission, Houellebecq portrays Muslims as peaceable and civil. They conquer France by persuasion, not violence. The villains in Submission are French cultural elites who abandon their values to advance themselves in the new regime. No one in Submission defends republican principles of secularism, equal rights, or academic freedom except for Jews, who leave for Israel.
Houellebecq is a satirist, not a prophet. He admits that his dystopia is highly unlikely. Nevertheless, Submission taps into an angst that has become an obsession in Europe. German Lutheran Bishop Jobst Schöne said, “We are approaching a situation resembling the tragic fate of Christianity in northern Africa in Islam’s early days.” In the seventh century, the southern Mediterranean was home to great Christian civilizations. Then, quite suddenly, it was absorbed into the caliphate, and its majestic churches became mosques. Many of the Christian residents of the region welcomed their new Muslim masters as liberators from the corrupt and inept Byzantine rulers. Christians were free to live as dhimmis under shari‘a law, but enticements of lower taxes and careers in government were hard to resist. People accommodated themselves quite quickly to the new religion.
Demographic trends contribute to the feeling of crisis. European countries have among the lowest birth rates in the history of the world, and their populations are rapidly aging. The Muslim population of Europe has doubled in the last decade, and it will double again before 2025. A popular T-shirt among Muslim European youth reads “2030—and then we take over.” German jurist Udo Di Fabio believes that native Europeans are at a big disadvantage in the cultural competition with Islam. “Why in God’s name,” he asks, “should a member of a vital world culture want to integrate into Western culture, when Western culture is not reproducing itself, no longer has any transcendent idea, and is approaching its historical end?”
Angela Merkel’s meeting on October 18 in Istanbul with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dramatized the weakness with which Europeans are confronting their Muslim neighbors. Erdoğan supports Hamas and denies the Armenian genocide. He has jailed journalists and presided over Soviet-style show trials. Turkey now ranks 149th out of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index. Merkel is a frequent critic of Erdoğan’s policies, and she has never supported Turkey’s bid for EU membership. Yet, in exchange for Turkey’s cooperation in stemming the flow of migrants to Europe, Merkel offered Erdoğan $3.4 billion in financial aid; visa-free travel for Turkish citizens wanting to visit Europe; and expedited movement on Turkey’s application to become part of the European Union. These concessions have far-reaching consequences for Europe’s cultural and religious future. And they gave Erdoğan a much-needed pre-election boost in advance of Turkey’s November’s parliamentary elections. A year ago, not even Houellebecq could have predicted that the most important leader of Europe’s Christian Democrats would pay such deference to an Islamist autocrat.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux released the English translation of Submission on October 20, 2015. The migrant crisis in Europe make the themes Houellebecq addresses in Submission even more relevant today than they were when the French edition was published in January. Thousands of displaced young men streaming into Europe this summer raise the specter of impending and dramatic social change. Europe’s large cities already house enclaves of alienated and unemployed Muslim youth. Instead of assimilating into European cultures, these youths tend to embrace a permanent, often Salafist, minority identity that requires a rejection of Western culture.
Houellebecq reminds us that Europe’s faith in self-actualization, peaceful coexistence, social security, pleasure, and soft power provides no answers for either the alienated youth in its cities or for the disintegrating states in its neighborhood.