On Oct. 22, a French court will decide whether it will protect the freedom of speech of one of the most disliked writers in France.
Michel Houellebecq, widely disparaged for his sex-obsessed novels The Elementary Particles and Platform,in which promiscuous women suffer violence and death, is a provocateur who has also criticized religious and political leaders in extremely seedy language.
What has dragged him into court was an interview last year with the literary review Lire in which he described Islam as "the stupidest of religions ( la religion la plus con) " and the Koran as an "appalling" book. The interview was connected to his latest novel, Platform,in which the narrator, an anti-Islamic bigot, celebrates the slaughter of Palestinians by the Israeli army.
Four Islamic organizations, supported by the French Human Rights League, immediately brought a legal action against Houellebecq under a French law which forbids "provocation leading to discrimination, hatred or violence toward a group of people who are believers in a recognized religion."
The case has broad implications, since other writers have also been condemned for expressing negative views of Islam in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. The most recent, and notorious, is Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, whose recent book Rage and Pride declares Islam an inferior religion and says that Muslim immigrants in the West have "multiplied like rats."
Because of the mounting outcry against writers who criticize Islam, many celebrated authors and journalists have hastened to defend Houellebecq. Salman Rushdie published an article last week in The Washington Post arguing that Houellebecq had not criticized Muslims but only their belief system. "As to 'the dumbest religion,' well, it's a point of view," wrote Rushdie, who himself was subject to a death sentence by Iranian clerics because he too criticized Islam in print. "Houellebecq in court made the essential observation that to attack people's belief systems is not to attack the people themselves. This is surely one of the foundation principles of an open society."
Contrarian and gadfly Christopher Hitchens also supported Houellebecq, declaring that "expressions of contempt for religion are by definition not racist."
Hitchens also pointed out that Houellebecq's novel, though not formally cited in the legal accusations against him, is a factor in his notoriety. "It ought to be an axiom that an author is not ipso facto responsible for the thoughts of his characters," wrote Hitchens in an article in the journal Free Inquiry.
But very few French luminaries, who dislike Houellebecq's best-selling novels, have hastened to his defence. "It's hard to get excited about a pornographer," says Jean Blot, head of the French branch of PEN, the organization which defends writers from political persecution. "He has no support in the literary community."
Blot added that PEN in Paris has so far not made a public statement on the Houellebecq case, "though we may do so after the judgment is handed down."
Blot agreed that PEN has a contradictory mandate, on the one hand defending literary freedom but on the other hand advocating social peace and understanding. "In France we are in favour of national cohesion," he said, citing France's large Muslim population (about six million) and its struggles with racism. "But when all is said and done, we must support the Voltairean right of free expression."
Blot added that it is "troubling" that Houellebecq's fictional writing had been discussed during the trial, which took place on Sept. 17.
Houellebecq's earlier novel, The Elementary Particles,was a bestseller in North America and England. It divided critics, with some unable to stomach the author's misanthropy, but many others praising the book's imaginative audacity. It won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last year, which at $142,000 is the world's richest literary award.
Platform was released last month in the British market and will be released in North America next July. It has also divided the critics, though they generally agree that it's not as impressive as The Elementary Particles. Jamie O'Neill in The Irish Times found much of it tedious and sex-obsessed, but added that "Houellebecq can be an engaging writer" and that the novel, in which Islamic terrorists attack a sex hotel in Thailand and slaughter everyone in it, "surprisingly, fantastically even, becomes a page-turner." Anthony Gardner in The Mail was less impressed: "pedophilia, S&M and wife-swapping are all grist to his grimy mill . . . [it]is not just repulsive, it is repulsive to no end."
If Houellebecq is convicted on Oct. 22, the penalty will be no worse than a judicial slap on the wrist and a token fine. But it will further isolate him from his peers.
However, the French press feels it is unlikely he will be convicted. The plaintiffs produced no evidence that Houellebecq had said he hated Muslims. Houellebecq did agree that he hated the belief system of Islam, but added that he hated all all monotheistic religions and disagreed with the widespread belief that they represented an advance in human thought.
The trial, however, soon turned into a piece of absurdist theatre, and not only because elderly absurdist playwright Arrabal was present as one of Houellebecq's few literary supporters. The event became truly theatrical when a group of right wingers from the National Movement entered the court, stripped off their shirts and revealed T-shirts carrying the slogan: "Marianne veiled, Marianne raped" (Marianne is the symbol of France, and "veiled" is a reference to Muslim women).
Houellebecq, a homely man in a shapeless jacket, seemed "indifferent" to the proceedings, according to reports in the French press. His defence was laced with sarcasm. Asked by the magistrate whether he had read the law under which he was charged, he said he had not: "It's excessively long and I had the suspicion that some of it might be boring."
A spokeswoman for Alfred Knopf publishers in New York, the U.S. publisher of Houellebecq's novels, said that the company did not fear legal action when Platform comes out next July. "We don't have the same laws as France. The First Amendment will protect Mr. Houellebecq's right to say what he believes."