In 1868, a Prussian writer named Hermann Goedsche (pen name: Sir John Retcliffe) wrote a novel entitled Biarritz. This second-rate espionage story overflowing with cheap pornography and violence would have sunken into oblivion if it was not for one scene. That scene describes a meeting between the representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel in the Jewish Cemetery of Prague. We are told that such meetings take place every 100 years to give Jewish leaders the opportunity to keep each other abreast of their efforts to take control of international finance, the media, and powerful governments. Their objective? Dominate the world – nothing more, nothing less. In Biarritz, the head of Jewish leaders proclaims this objective in explicit terms: “We will drive [the masses] to upheavals, to revolutions; and each of these catastrophes marks a big step forward for our particular interests and brings us rapidly nearer to our sole aim – world-domination, as was promised to our father Abraham”.
This book is without any doubt a work of fiction. However, it instrumentalizes something that is at the very core of modern antisemitism: the myth of the world Jewish conspiracy. This scene struck such deep chord among antisemites and conspiracy theorists, that it was made into a separate volume entitled The Rabbi’s Speech and went on to become one of the sources of inspiration for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the world’s most infamous version of the myth, which had a special place on Adolf Hitler’s night table. Biarritz is undoubtedly an antisemitic novel. Writers of fiction cannot hide behind the claim that their works have no impact on the real social world, because they do. Indeed, the staging of the Prague Cemetery meeting made the world Jewish conspiracy a little more real, a little more palpable, at the expense of Jews. In other terms, Goedsche exploited hostility towards Jews to make a buck and advance his personal career. Tragically, not many people realized that at the time and few people if any attempted to highlight the crass antisemitism of Goedsche’s endeavour. The term “antisemitism” was not even coined yet: the phenomenon was so widespread that it was somehow invisible and did not require a term. Even when Wilhelm Marr did coin it in 1879, it was designed to carry a positive charge, because it was good to be an antisemite, it was a matter of common sense (and in Marr’s case, patriotism). This is not all that surprising, after all the second half of the nineteenth century was an age of extremism and racial paranoia.
In the above account, there are distant echoes of recent events. One year ago, Random House published Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission in English translation. The original French had come out on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, and thus immediately acquired some air of prophecy: it immediately went to top sales in France as well as in Italy and Germany, and is by now an international bestseller. The novel tells the story of France’s takeover in 2022 by a Islamist political group, the Muslim Fraternity. In a context of civil strife, the Fraternity triumphs in the presidential election thanks to the support of the French Socialist Party and the centre-of-right UMP, two parties ready to support anyone to keep Marine Le Pen and her Front National out of the Elysée palace. Once in power, the Muslim Fraternity’s leader Mohammed Ben Abbes endeavours to Islamize France, unopposed by an apathetic society. Universities become Islamic with some serious consequences described in the novel: “obviously, no woman could hold a teaching position in an Islamic university”. Miniskirts disappear from the streets of France and polygamy becomes the rule. The Muslims, who had so far been kept in check, are now self-assured conquerors: “The girls in burkas… moved slowly and with new confidence… as if they were already in charge”.
We witness the Islamization of France through the eyes of the novel’s protagonist François. He is a lecturer in literature specialising in Joris-Karl Huysmans, a late nineteenth-century French author. François is a typical anti-hero, unashamedly self-indulgent and obsessed with his paltry sexual hanky-panky. Apathetic as the rest of French society, he simply glides through the Islamization of France, and in order to keep his job and flatter his sexual drive, he decides to convert to Islam and joyfully espouse polygamy (which in Houellebecq’s novel involves at least one under-age wife). Houellebecq suggests that his conversion to Islam parallels that of Huysmans, the subject of his research, to Catholicism. I will not delve into Submission’s plot any further. Summaries of the novel can easily be found online and my purpose in this article is to reflect on what the novel and the reviews it received tell us about the casualization of islamophobia today.
In the same vein as it is legitimate to wonder in hindsight whether Goedsche’s Biarritz was an antisemitic novel, one should be allowed to ask if Houellebecq’s novel is islamophobic. This question is all the more important because all the reviewers published by the most prestigious English-language outlets have answered with an emphatic “no”, when they even accepted the premise that there was such a thing as islamophobia, i.e. a form of prejudice that targets people of Muslim background or perceived as such. As a historian whose research and teaching focuses on western views of Islam and Muslims, I beg to differ.
Submission is about Islamisation. And in my view, the myth of the Islamisation of Europe is a close relative to the myth of the world Jewish conspiracy. A textual comparison between The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (first published in Russia in 1903) and the central text of the myth of the Islamization of Europe, namely Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia: the Euro-Arab Axis (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005), is quite revealing. At first, the two texts seem to have little in common. The Protocols is a forgery, claiming to be the minutes of that secret meeting of Jewish leaders in the Prague Cemetery that Goedsche dramatized in his novel. Eurabia on the other hand parades as a work of scholarship complete with references and a rich bibliography. Take a closer look though, and you will start noticing strikingly similar internal dynamics: both texts represent their target population (Jews in one, Muslims in the other) as a hostile and monolithic mass, animated by one single purpose: that of dominating Europe and annihilating western civilisation as we know it. To reach their evil ends, each group uses its best weapons: the Jews have international finance and media on their side. In some versions of the myth of Islamization, the Muslims have this cunning propensity to impose their ways on Europeans; and in other versions they display a prodigious capacity to multiply. The most striking similarity between the two texts is that in fulfilling their ploy, the Jews and the Muslims can count on European fifth columnists. In The Protocols, these are the socialists, those suspicious internationalists who lack loyalty to any European nation, and in that sense are similar to the Jews themselves. In Eurabia, the culprits are the European institutions, similarly supranational, immune to national loyalties, and infiltrated by multiculturalists and left-wingers. Under Bat Ye’or’s pen, these institutions and particularly one of them, the Euro-Arab Dialogue founded in 1973, work hand in hand with Muslims to plot the ideological and demographic takeover of Europe by jihad, in other terms the transformation of Europe into Eurabia. The reality is that the Euro-Arab Dialogue was a talk shop that achieved nothing of note and died a slow death in 1979. As ludicrous as Bat Ye’or’s scenario of Islamization might sound, in our age of fantasy and paranoia, some recognized academics have lent their name to the Eurabia scenario, particularly Niall Fergusson, Bernard Lewis and the late Sir Martin Gilbert. Bat Ye’or has been invited to give talks at venerable institutions such as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, and has given briefings on Capitol Hill in Washington. Houellebecq himself is well-versed in the writings of Bat Ye’or, whose name or work are mentioned in the novel.
In Europe, Bat Ye’or’s myth of Islamization is actively propagated by a number of movements such as the English Defence League (EDL), Riposte Laïque, or PEGIDA, in addition to the leaders of practically every European far-right or populist party. For instance, Marine Le Pen, the head of the French Front National, tweeted in 2015 “If we lose, the veil will be imposed on all women, sharia law will replace our constitution, barbarity will take our place”.1 But Bat Ye’or is not the only ideologue of the myth of Islamization; a number of militant essayists have developed and propagated their own versions of the myth, in which Muslims are helped in their project of Islamization by, in turn, the socialists, the May 68 generation, the multiculturalists, the “cultural Marxists”, or more broadly political correctness. These authors include the late Oriana Fallaci, but also Robert Spencer, Melanie Philips and Mark Steyn. These are all names that Anders Breivik quoted with reverence in the manifesto he left behind before cold-bloodedly murdering 77 innocent people, mostly teenagers, to slow down the Islamization of Norway.
A few scholars and reporters have analyzed the myth of the Islamization of Europe using scientific methods. They are courageous, because they have been conducting their work in an atmosphere of profound hostility and often had to face a barrage of insults. Raphaël Liogier, who has convincingly debunked the myth in his well-researched book Le Mythe de l’Islamisation has been called a “collabo” (a term used in France to refer to those who collaborated with the Nazi occupiers), and “the useful idiot of the Islamic takeover”.
In its most common variety, Islamization is predicated on the supposed ability of Muslims in Europe to – as Fallaci liked to put it – “multiply like rats”, certainly at a faster rate than non-Muslim Europeans. What will destroy western civilisation is therefore Muslim women’s wombs; Houellebecq himself affirms it in an interview: “[Europe’s] suicide is a matter of demographics”.2 Once Muslims have overwhelmed Europeans by their sheer numbers, they will move on to impose sharia law on them, and western civilisation will simply come to an end. The first flaw of the theory is that it ignores one of the most elementary characteristics of human nature: it assumes that a large number of people (in this case several millions of them) can be united in the relentless and invariable pursuit of one goal, in this case imposing sharia law on Europe. There are no individualities and no disagreements, no Muslim can be imagined indifferent to that cause, and there is only one sharia law: we are dealing with one enemy and most Muslims are agents of that enemy (I hear a distant echo of The Protocols). Secondly, the proponents of this variety of the myth of Islamization – like all conspiracy theorists – invent their data. Liogier has shown that actual demographic statistics run in the face of all this islamophobic twaddle: the countries of origin of recently arrived Muslim migrants either have fertility rates lower than the replacement threshold, or have experienced the most dramatic demographic slumps, thus trending towards that threshold. Even when rates are higher upon arrival, they fall in line with the national average within one generation as most Muslims, just like most other human beings, adapt themselves to new social environments. It is due to this fundamental disconnect with reality that Abdellali Hajjat and Marwan Mohammed describe the myth of Islamization as “chimerical”: it is an ideational construct without any root in tangible, verifiable facts.3 Finally, the Muslims today are possibly the most powerless members of European societies, as vulnerable as Jews were earlier. Given that they are highly fragmented along ethnic, linguistic, national and religious lines, Europeans of Muslim background have nothing by way of social organization and as a result have no lobbying power. Add to this that they are generally to be found in the lower strata of society, with lower incomes than average, no wonder there is not a single notable European politician or billionaire with a Muslim background. Yet, in the apocalyptic and paranoid Islamization mindset, they are almighty: they can put an end to this civilisation in a blink of the eye.
The myth of Islamization is at the very heart of modern-day islamophobia. Not only it turns Muslims into the ‘other’, the different, and the exotic, but it makes them out to be fundamentally hostile to us, bent on the destruction of our civilisation. Similarly, many scholars of antisemitism consider the myth of the world Jewish conspiracy to be an essential element of modern antisemitism.4 This has interesting implications if one is to dispassionately assess Houellebecq’s novel or the reviews it has received. Moreover, and apart from the core theme of Islamization, there are other aspects of Submission that betray Houellebecq’s islamophobia. Houellebecq continues the long-established tradition of orientalist literature to muzzle the Muslim. Indeed, the Muslim in the novel is always mute (if one discounts one character who is a convert). Characters that do not talk are easier to dehumanize and this is exactly what Houellebecq does: Muslims are narrated and represented exclusively through the Islamization plot. This suggests that they are a silent mass of conspirators, waiting for a second of weakness on your part to push the sharia law down your throat. None of them is endowed with a degree of humanity, Houellebecq makes it impossible to dissociate them from Islamization.
In this context, the reviews of Submission would be amusing if they were not symptomatic of the generalised acceptance of islamophobic conspiracy theories in our day and age. Practically all who have reviewed Submission in prestigious English-language outlets have taken serious issue with even the suggestion that the novelist’s instrumentation of the myth of Islamization can be deemed islamophobic, which is approximately equivalent to the claim that Goedsche’s Biarritz is an innocent satire. Here there is a clear parallel with antisemitism: islamophobic thinking today is as legitimate as antisemitism was when The Protocols were published. An alternative way to explain these reviews is by reference to class, ethnicity and gender: all the reviewers are part of a coterie of white, western, middle-class, middle-aged men, who clearly admire Houellebecq (another white, western, middle-class, middle-aged man). This seems to indicate that literary review magazines are not as pluralistic and inclusive as they should. As a result of this enormous shortcoming, the voice of the Muslim “other” is stolen in the cacophony of white people reviewing white people representing Muslims behind their backs.
A few examples are in order. Adam Shatz’s review in the London Review of Books is puzzling for anyone who knows Shatz’s refreshingly balanced positions on issues of ethnicity. For Shatz, Houellebecq is so disdainful of a decadent Europe that he considers “even Islam” as preferable. Shatz points out that the Muslim president of France in the novel, Ben Abbes, endeavours to recreate a Roman Empire of sorts by integrating Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Lebanon into the European Union, then moves to eliminate unemployment by discouraging women from working, and puts an end to crime (as if by a magic wand: what a supernatural force Islam is under Houellebecq’s pen). Therefore, according to Shatz, he brings about a “stronger” France. In a piece that runs along similar lines and published in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik claims (and what a flattery for Houellebecq) that Submission is comparable to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal farm or Aldous Huxley’s A brave new world: a satire. A satire that is rather benign and aimed at the spineless French politicians and not Muslims. The same themes are echoed in Alex Preston’s review in The Guardian. Preston goes further in arguing that Houellebecq sees Islamization as an opportunity to regenerate Europe, and that he “presents moderate Muslims who take over France as a force of spiritual integrity”, a claim that made me fall from my chair and swallow my pen. Preston puts forth an even more intriguing claim: that Houellebecq’s target in Submission is… Houellebecq himself. Strange times, my dear.
I too believe that the French elite plays a role in Submission, and as I mentioned earlier both the myth of the world Jewish conspiracy and the myth of Islamization presuppose the help of willing fifth columnists from within Europe, or at least passive abettors. However, the idea put forth by Shatz, Gopnik, and Preston that the blame for an Islamized France must be primarily laid on the doorstep of French politicians rather than French Muslims deliberately ignores half of the story. I find Gopnik’s claim that Houellebecq’s “portrait of the Islamic regime is quite fond” mystifying to say the least. If under the pen of someone who has called Islam “the dumbest religion on Earth” and admitted to the charge of being “racist”, the Islamization of France is something to be “fond” of, then I must be the queen of Eurabia. True, Houellebecq’s protagonist, François, never utters anything unambiguously islamophobic, in fact he gives signs of admiring Ben Abbes, and of course ultimately converts to Islam. However, the opposite – a crudely islamophobic protagonist – is not something that we would expect from a novelist such as Houellebecq, would we? He is a master of flagrant deceit, and fiction provides him with a fig-leaf of suspended disbelief, even an alibi. Whatever the novel’s deliberate ambiguity, there is a faceless Muslim scourge that puts an end to everything the French love: conspicuous wine-drinking, freedom, laïcité, and more importantly, miniskirts: as François once laments: “The contemplation of women’s asses, that small, dreamy consolation, had also become impossible. A transformation was indeed under way”. How can one entertain for even a split second that Houellebecq can be fond of this scenario, no matter how disappointed he is with France’s elite? How can one miss out on the fact that Islam is Houellebecq’s punishment for the apathy of the French political class and not his solution? One must be very naïve indeed… or willingly blind.
But these reviews are rather benign compared to others. Some reviewers use the occasion to discreetly give credence to the myth of Islamization. They propagate it nonchalantly like Malise Ruthven in the Financial Times. This is the journalist who coined the term “islamofascism”. From the outset, in the second sentence of his review, Ruthven tells his readers that Submission is based on a “not wholly implausible idea”. His review proceeds identically as those by Shatz, Gopnik and Preston (one wonders whether they were part of a study group) but ends on a twist: “this is an important novel. One could dismiss it as a satirical fantasy… But it’s worth remembering that Houellebecq has form in demonstrating that life sometimes imitates art”. Read again: “life sometimes imitates art”. Allow me to decrypt: Malise Ruthven, holder of a PhD from Cambridge University, is telling us that Eurabia and the end of western civilisation as you know it are around the corner. Five years is nothing, people: five years ago we were already three years into the Great Recession. 2022 is just one more US presidential election away, and when we get there Vladimir Putin will probably still be in power. In view of the imminence of Islamization (according to Ruthven anyway), don’t you think that you need to get ahead of the curve? Consider converting right away, it might serve you later. Invest in the future of your children: buy them burqas and introduce them to the benefits of polygamy. Or take arms as Breivik did.
My personal favourite review is the one by Karl Ove Knausgård in The New York Times. For most of his piece, the best-selling author procrastinates by discussing every aspect of the novel except what is arguably the most central (the “submission”, that is). And suddenly, after having shunned the issue of Islamization for several pages, comes the affirmation – in passing – that this is all “entirely possible”, and that Houellebecq is “psychologically persuasive”. Knausgård is as unencumbered by the need for evidence or even credibility as Ruthven. Follows a total rehashing of what seems to be a Houellebecq’s fan-club template for reviewing Submission. Once again we are told that the novelist’s real target is France’s elite, and that Islamization is only secondary if important at all, and so on. Anyone who has read the novel with a modicum of intellectual honesty can only be stupefied by the aplomb with which Knausgård tries to cover up Houellebecq’s tracks and convince us that we should ignore the elephant in the room. What Houellebecq has achieved to have such an army of devotees at his service, I wonder.
Although focused on reviews in English, a word about Alain Finkielkraut’s panegyric in Le Journal du Dimanche is necessary as it exemplifies a consistent attempt by polemicists and intellectuals to silence rational criticism of islamophobia. Public philosopher number one, Finkielkraut has recently been appointed to the Académie Française. In his review, he refers to Houellebecq as “clear-headed” and a “realist”, and his novel as “plausible”. After shadow-boxing the usual scarecrows of the French reactionary right (political correctness, the Left and multiculturalism), comes his conclusion, which deserves to be quoted in full:
“Today’s sociologists flood us with statistics to ban us from feeling what we feel and see what we see. Their expertise discredits our experience, and journalists take over to present our fears as irrational and the notion of settlers’ immigration as a fantasy. In these circumstances, only literature, or at least courageous writers, can reclaim reality.”
The message is absolutely clear. Finkielkraut is asking you to relieve yourself of objective and rational thinking. He is saying: “Think with your guts instead. Do not listen to the sociologists and their statistics, listen only to me Finkielkraut and my friend Houellebecq. Fantasy and fear are far superior to facts, and the myths peddled by identitaire artists are somehow more real than empirical reality”. Goedsche’s supporters would have agreed. Finkielkraut’s en passant comment is the most candid attempt I have ever read anywhere to negate modernity and turn the clock on the age of reason and rationality. It is the most shameless endeavour from an intellectual to convince his audience that they should follow instinctive prejudice and fear. And for good reason: as mentioned earlier the myth of Islamization does simply not stand up to scrutiny. Only by switching your brain off can you carry on believing in it. What is striking is that Finkielkraut is neither some antirational romantic nor an illiterate EDL hooligan, he is a philosopher who taught at the École Polytechnique for twenty-five years. But who would be surprised by anything in our day and age?
Gasping for a breath of fresh air and sanity, I impulsively re-read Sylvain Bourmeau’s incisive piece in The Paris Review, one of the only reviews of Houellebecq that did not look the other way when the islamophobic elephant was passing. Bourmeau has made the most salient point yet about Houellebecq’s intention in writing Submission. He reminds us that Houellebecq is perfectly aware of the epistemological duty of the novelist, something that Shatz for instance is in denial of (according to him, Houellebecq “writes novels, not manifestos”). As Houellebecq showed it in his previous novel The map and the territory, he is a promoter of the idea that literature is a medium of learning that supplements humanities and the social sciences in representing the world. Moreover, he has repeatedly affirmed in interviews that his scenario is “plausible”. Therefore, Submission is anything but an innocent roar by an ageing anarchist. It is neither a game nor mere provocation. It is Houellebecq’s premeditated attempt to educate his readers, to draw their attention to the fact that the polygamous mass of Muslims in our midst are bent on our gradual replacement and if we are not willing to embrace polygamy we should look at them with suspicion. And this pedagogical enterprise is facilitated by his reviewers who effectively act as abettors in this islamophobic plot. And in the meantime, Houellebecq makes a buck with a rather mediocre novel that has so far won no prize and has shone by its absence on “best novel of the year” lists.
Whatever Houellebecq’s intention, the fact of the matter is that for many of his readers his version of the myth of Islamization is not a mere satire and is instead very real. A few months ago, my Twitter account – that I use to follow what I call L’Internationale Islamophobe – was abuzz. The election of Sadiq Khan to the mayoralty of London, the city where I live, was greeted with horror, and as proof that Houellebecq’s Submission was becoming reality. Tweet after tweet in several languages spat out the same warnings: #Houellebecq #Submission #SadiqKhan #Islamization. None of Sadiq Khan’s policies can be deemed “Islamic” by any stretch of the imagination so why the fuss? Because every Muslim is an agent of Islamization. “Has he not put forth an Islamic policy?” the argument would go, “but that’s because he is part of a secret conspiracy of course, and must act secretively. Once Islamization is achieved, Sadiq Khan, like all the others, will come out of his jihadi closet and force sharia law on us at the point of the sword”. And time and again, Houellebecq was saluted as a visionary and an oracle. This shows only one thing: that more than any other novel, Submission makes plain that the boundary between a work of fiction and a manisto is overstated. And Houellebecq is of course perfectly aware of that and is not innocent.
In light of everything I said, allow me to disagree with Houellebecq’s fan club. This novel promotes the myth of Islamization and as such is openly, shamelessly, and profoundly islamophobic. It will go down in history as such, similarly to Goedsche’s antisemitic Biarritz. By bringing an Islamic France literally into the living room of his readers, Houellebecq offers them a sensory experience of Eurabia that is subtly designed to frighten while offering its author the possibility of shunning responsibility. He is also islamophobic because he otherises, essentialises and demonises, albeit – again – in a subtle manner. Houellebecq and his clique, in Bourmeau’s words, incrementally make life for anyone with an Islamic-sounding name just a little bit more difficult by the day. They do not target the jihadists, because that would require testicles. It is much easier to take it out on the innocent and the vulnerable. And that is unfair, cowardly and despicable.
When Biarritz was published in 1868, some voices perhaps did scream out that the novel cultivated Jew-hatred. But when a majority of people are in the grips of apocalyptic paranoia, who listens?
Reza Zia-Ebrahimi is a historian based at King’s College London and works on European views of Islam. The author would like to thank Vincent Martigny, Ramita Navai, Jon Gharraie and Antoon Sinan for very useful comments on earlier drafts.
Bourmeau, Sylvain. ‘Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book’, in The Paris Review.
Cohn, Norman. Warrant for genocide: the myth of the Jewish world conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. London: Serif, 1996 .
Liogier, Raphaël. Le mythe de l’Islamisation: essai sur une obsession collective. Seuil, 2012.
Saunders, Doug. The myth of the Muslim tide: do immigrants threaten the West? Vintage, 2012.
Yeʼor, Bat. Eurabia: the Euro-Arab axis. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005.
Zia-Ebrahimi, Reza. ‘When the Elders of Zion moved to Eurabia: continuities and transmutations between conspiratorial antisemitism and islamophobia’. Forthcoming.
 Marine Le Pen (@MLP_officiel), “Si nous perdons, le voile sera imposée à toutes les femmes, la charia remplacera notre Constitution, la barbarie s’installera.” 2 December 2015, 12:00 PM. Tweet.
 Sylvain Bourmeau, ‘Michel Houellebecq defends his controversial novel’, The Paris Review, 2 January 2015.
 Abdellali Hajjat and Marwan Mohammed, Islamophobie: Comment les élites françaises fabriquent le” problème musulman” (la Découverte, 2016).
 See for instance many of the essays in Richard Allen Landes and Steven T. Katz, The paranoid apocalypse: A hundred-year retrospective on the Protocols of the elders of Zion, Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies series (New York; London: New York University Press, 2012).