An interesting, and very French, phenomenon is going on in a Paris court: "l'affaire Houellebecq." A fashionable novelist, Michel Houellebecq, is on trial for calling Islam "stupid" and the "most deceiving of religions"; the formal accusation is "racial injuries" and "incitement to hate against the Moslem community" — all penal infractions under French law. The plaintiffs include the Grand Mosque of Lyon, the National Association of Moslems in France, the World Moslem League and, ironically, the League of Human Rights.
All of this may seem odd to Americans. After all, in a democracy there is supposed to be something called freedom of expression. Furthermore, Houellebecq has made it clear that he has no animus against Moslems as persons, just disdain for Islam, and has never sought to incite anything other than the interest of critics, who were largely unimpressed with his latest novel. He did, however, declare that the Quran is "appalling," referring to its literary style.
Now, Mr. Houellebecq does not read Arabic. Most of those who do, Muslims or not, consider the language of the Quran extraordinarily poetic and expressive. For those who read it in translation it does give the impression of incoherence, but that is perhaps an impression to be laid at the door of the translators.
One therefore has to pay far more attention to the opinion of Dalil Boubakeur, Rector of the Paris Mosque, who thinks that Houellebecq has "abused, attacked, and insulted" Islam. "Words can kill. Freedom of expression stops at the point it starts hurting." This of course brings to mind the late and unlamented Ayatollah Khomeini's call for the murder of the similarly untalented Salman Rushdie, who in Khomeini's self-discovered competence in literary analysis, had insulted the Prophet Mohammed.
Boubakeur is a moderate by the general standards of European Muslim theologians, far removed from the ideological recruiters of terrorists ensconced in London: Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada, etc. Still, he is convinced that any opinion unfavorable to Islam, no matter whether informed or not, and whether or not it comes from a Muslim, is a crime. This is also the opinion — and policy — of Saudi Arabia, where it is against the law for non-Muslims to even live in the country. It also flies in the face of everything Western democracies stand for: freedom of expression and, perhaps more importantly, the individual's freedom of thought.
The contrast could not be more apparent: American troops defending Saudi Arabia were prevented from celebrating Christmas, as was former President Bush when he visited them. And of course, there is no church or synagogue in Saudi Arabia, by law. That, however, does not prevent the Saudis from asking for the "right" to build esthetically insulting mosques in Europe, from Spain to Sarajevo. It is a crime, and a serious one, to pray to any God other than Allah even in one's home in Saudi Arabia, but surely Muslims in France (and the rest of the European Union) have arrogated the right to criminalize anti-Islamic thoughts.
With apologies to the American triumphalists of the "democracy is on march throughout the world" school of thought, here is a case of theocracy on the march, on the banks of the Seine. And a smart one, too. The accusation against Houellebecq includes "incitement to racial hatred," a claim guaranteed to attract to the cause all self-proclaimed defenders of "human rights." It was the very same nonsensical accusation that brought the assassinated Dutch politician Pym Fortuyn to call an (English) interviewer "stupid": a correct label. Indeed, there is and never has been a "racial" component of Islam. One of the first converts to Mohammed's call in the seventh century was a black slave. Since then Europeans such as French writer and intellectual Roger Garaudy (formerly a Stalinist, a neoleftist, and a liberal), Hispanics (see alleged Al Qaeda terrorist Jose Padilla), blacks (as much as 50 percent of all American Muslims) are all believers in Islam, but what is their "race"? None, of course, but calling Houellebecq "racist" gives a nice sound, not to mention an effective call to arms to all those who hate the West.
There are perhaps as many as 20 million Muslims in Western Europe today, making an increasingly important political lobby. Some, probably most, are content to practice their faith in peace, but many want more. In the name of Western tolerance for their faith, they want to impose non-Western, especially Islamic, intolerance upon their Western hosts. Call this the Saudi infiltration syndrome, or call it the revenge of multiculturalism.
It is tacitly acknowledged that there is a new wave of anti-Semitism in France (and in the UK, Netherlands, etc), and an older wave of crime by teenagers. It is not openly acknowledged that both are largely the works of young Muslim men, many born in Europe. The larger number of arrests of Islamic terrorists in Europe than in the United States since 9-11-01 reflects not better police work there, but that Europe is being used as the perfect petri dish for Islamic radicalism. It allows people expelled from Saudi Arabia for religious extremism — which does actually happen, though one can only wonder how — to live in the UK at taxpayers' expense; it allows Islamist totalitarians to recruit, fund, and organize under the umbrella of democratic rights, something they cannot do in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, or Jordan — to mention only the most tolerant Arab regimes. Simply put, the worst of the political culture of Islam is moving to Paris, London, and Berlin.
When regimes in truly Muslim states — whether democratic as in Turkey, or less than that in Morocco or Algeria — crack down on Islamic totalitarians, the "human rights" protests get very loud indeed. When the Turkish military, behind the scenes, forced the resignation of the Islamic leader Erbakan, a friend of Iran and Libya, that was condemned as "undemocratic." When in 1992 the Algerian military prevented an electoral victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the cries of "democracy above all" were heard all over Europe. No matter that everyone knew that Algeria's election was a case of "one man, one vote, one time." Now Islamic totalitarianism has moved to France, England, and Germany, and its pernicious culture is as accepted there as it was admired by "progressive" intellectuals at home — in Iran or Sudan.
What the Houellebecq case represents, for France and beyond, is a new "l'affaire Dreyfus," a new fight for the very cultural identity of the West. It raises existential questions indeed. Is France's court system to become a tool of Islamist intolerants, aided and abetted by self-hating human rights fundamentalists, or is the secular France going to defeat their attacks against its very nature? Are Muslims in France and elsewhere in Europe going to accept that it was their decision to move there and it is their obligation to accept the rules of the receiving society, rather than use the rules against that society? The case is still open, but the prospects are far from encouraging.