A French court acquitted the controversial writer Michel Houellebecq on Tuesday on charges of inciting racism against Muslims.
The case was launched by four Islamic groups – the largest mosques in Paris and Lyon, the National Federation of French Muslims (FNMN) and Saudi Arabia’s World Islamic League – as well as France’s Human Rights League. The complaint took on not just Houellebecq, but the French literary magazine Lire as well, which published an interview that sparked the protest.
"The stupidest religion"
In an interview published during last year’s launch of Houellebecq’s latest novel, “Platform,” the author reportedly called Islam “the stupidest religion.” The novel centers around an attack on a tourist resort in Thailand by suspected Muslim terrorists.
Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris mosque, told the BBC that Muslims were insulted by passages in the novel in which a character admits to a “quiver of glee” every time a “Palestinian terrorist” is killed.
In court, Boubakeur said that “Islam has been reviled, attacked with hateful words. My community has been humiliated.”
Houellebecq told the Paris court earlier this month that his words had been twisted. “I have never displayed the least contempt for Muslims,” he said. But “I have as much contempt as ever for Islam.”
The author told the court that he considered the literary quality of the Koran inferior to that of the Bible. “The Bible has several authors, some good and some as bad as crap. The Koran has only one author and its overall style is mediocre.”
Publisher distances itself
Over the course of the court proceedings, Houellebecq’s publisher Flammarion distanced itself from the writer and issued a written apology to the Paris mosque.
Houellebecq lives in Ireland and did not go into hiding after the charges were filed, although his lawyer has said that the author was at risk of assassination.
Comparisons have been made to Salman Rushdie, whose 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” resulted in death threats and the issuing of a Fatwa by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
Houellebecq’s lawyer, Emmanuel Pierrat, told the BBC that “the two cases are very similar – because those who feel offended are Muslims, and because it’s a question of literature. Both Salman Rushdie and Michel Houellebecq are great writers – we are not dealing with small-time provocateurs.”
Winner of Impac prize
Indeed, 44-year-old Houellebecq won the prestigious Impac literary prize earlier this year (which includes a 100,000 euro award) for his book “Atomized.”
The judging panel described Atomized as “a bleak yet often humorous portrayal of modern life as viewed by the novel's two protagonists - half-brothers with wildly different personalities seeking wildly different goals.”
The success comes just eight years after Houellebecq published his first novel. Houellebecq was born on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion, but at age six was sent to live with his grandmother in rural France.
According to a report by Rushdie, published in Die Weltwoche, Michel Houellebecq was once Michel Thomas. He took his grandmother’s name after his mother married a Muslim and converted to Islam.
In 1980, he earned a degree in agricultural engineering and married that same year. The marriage didn’t last, however, and the depression that followed led Houellebecq to seek psychiatric treatment.
During this period, he turned to poetry and by the mid-80s had begun to publish poems, followed by his first novel in 1994.