Michel Houellebecq may have been guilty, but I'm still glad he
was acquitted. The award-winning novelist, who has been dubbed "a literary
Eminem" and "the Ozzy Osbourne of modern French letters," stood accused of
inciting religious hatred, an offense that in France carries a sentence of
up to 18 months. The evidence against him consisted of derogatory remarks
In a 2001 interview with the literary magazine Lire, Houellebecq
described a "revelation" he had experienced in the Sinai desert: "I said to
myself that the idea of believing in only one God was cretinous." He added
that "the stupidest religion of all is Islam."
Houellebecq also asserted that Islam was "a dangerous religion
from the start." Worse, it was boring. "When you read the Koran, you're
devastated," he said. "The Bible at least is beautifully written because the
Jews have a heck of a literary talent."
Four Islamic organizations -- two French mosques, the World
Islamic League, and the National Federation of French Muslims -- reacted to
Houellebecq's comments by filing a lawsuit that led to a trial last month. A
three-judge panel recently rejected the charges against him, finding that
the novelist's condemnation of Islam "does not contain any intent to
verbally abuse, show contempt for, or insult the followers of the religion
Understandably, many Muslims disagree. "I have never displayed
the least contempt for Muslims," Houellebecq insisted during the trial, "but
I have as much contempt as ever for Islam." Asked if he thought Muslims were
stupid, he replied: "I didn't say that. I said they practiced a stupid
In effect, Houellebecq was saying: "Nothing personal, but your
religion is idiotic." How could such a judgment about one's deeply held
not be taken as an insult?
"To call Islam 'the dumbest religion' . . . is a provocation,"
said a lawyer for one of the mosques. "We still believe that Michel
Houellebecq's remarks served to feed Islamophobia and the stigmatization of
the Muslim faith," said another.
Although it's hard to disagree with those assessments, that does
not mean Houellebecq belongs in jail. Muslims have every right to be
insulted, but they do not have a right to be shielded from insults.
The prosecutors in the Houellebecq case, who urged the judges to
dismiss the charges against him, tried to finesse this point. "We cannot say
that when we express an opinion on Islam it implies that we are attacking
the Muslim community," one of them said. "We are not here to be moral but to
Fair enough, but "attacking the Muslim community," if it simply
means saying something that offends Muslims, should not be a crime. The
tradition of free speech and free inquiry relies on a distinction between
the wounded feelings caused by "verbal abuse" and the wounded bodies caused
by physical attacks.
The plaintiffs who tried to have Houellebecq locked up seem
oblivious to this distinction. "Words have a price," said Dalil Boubakeur,
rector at the Mosque of Paris. "One can kill with a word. Freedom of
expression stops at the point at which it does damage and the Muslim
community feels insulted."
This position is completely at odds with the principles of a
free society, but its logic underlies France's law against incitement of
religious hatred. The judges were able to acquit Houellebecq only by
The Paris-based Human Rights League, which initially sided with
the Muslim groups, displayed a similar blindness. After accusing Houellebecq
of "Islamophobia," the organization said it was pleased by his acquittal.
"We didn't want to condemn Mr. Houellebecq," Agnes Tricoire, a
lawyer with the league, told the Associated Press. "We wanted to clarify the
debate. We were against the fact that Mr. Houellebecq hid behind his
writer's identity to say whatever he wanted during an interview."
According to Tricoire, the turning point came when the
plaintiffs cited nasty comments about Muslims by characters in Houellebecq's
most recent novel, "Platform," as evidence of his criminal intent. "Nobody
can feel attacked by a character because he's fictional, he's not real," she
told UPI. "It's very important that art be able to talk about what happens
in society." Art can talk, apparently, but artists need to keep their mouths
And what about journalists? The Italian writer Oriana Fallaci
faces charges in France because of "The Rage and the Pride," her post-9/11
polemic against Islam. Too bad for her she's not a fictional character.