Decoding Islamophobia in Contemporary Society: The Case of Houellebecq

Govand Khalid Azeez. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies. Volume 33, Issue 6. 2019.

Introduction

Let us begin with three scenes. The first takes place in Nice on the shore of the town’s Proemenade des Anglais. Four armed police officers stand over a Muslim woman in headscarf with her two children, and ask her to remove her long-sleeve top and headscarf. She must, according to the officers, ‘dress sensibly’. This scene ends with the officers issuing a fine for not wearing ‘an outfit respecting good morals and secularism’ (Quinn, 2016). The second takes place after the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017. Columnist for the Mail Online, Katie Hopkins, Tweets that it is time for the ‘final solution’ (Hopkins in Hawkins, 2017), clearly invoking the genocidal language of the Third Reich. Finally, one of France’s most celebrated writers, Michel Houellebecq, makes the claim in 2002 that ‘Islam is the stupidest religion’ (Houellebecq in Broughton 2002), and more than a decade later, responds to criticism of his novel Submission in the following way: ‘Am I Islamophobic? Probably, yes’ (Houellebecq in Chrisafis 2015).

The three utterances point to subtly different ways that Islamophobia is, in Hassan Mahamdallie’s words, ‘potent and multifaceted, manifesting itself’ (2015) at all levels of the body-politic. By ‘Islamophobia’, I mean here a set of generic procedures that emerge out of the historical intersection between forms of State violence and the cultural production of a politico-ontological archetype, the ‘Muslim’, that has been ostracized, sometimes annihilated, occasionally commended, but always an object of anxiety. Here we can also draw from Mehdi Semati’s approach to Islamophobia as ‘an ideological response that conflates histories, politics, socities and cultures of the Middle East into a single unified and negative conception of an essentialized Islam, which is then deemed incompatible with Euro-Americaness’ (2010, 256). There are, of course, some differences between these ideological expressions of Islamophobia. The first scene above is an institutional injunction that falls under what Hatem Bazian calls ‘manifest Islamophobia’ (2015), pointing towards connections between Islamophobia and the State that have now been documented extensively (e.g. Mahamdallie 2015; Rodinson 1974). The latter two scenes, however, are examples of what Bazian calls ‘latent Islamophobia’, conceived through ‘an inception process using films, news reports, media talking heads, book publishing, and emphasis on Islam as a violent, backward, and oppressive religion inclined toward despotism and lack of progress’ (Bazian 2015, 1063). In this context, it is possible to place Hopkins within a Debordian galaxy of latently Islamophobic symbols and images that circulate across Twitter, Youtube, and Facebook (among others), and that in turn support more systemic Islamophobic diatribes. Among these latter, the novels of Michel Houellebecq present a distinct challenge. On the one hand, they contribute to the Orientalist ‘clash of civilizations’ narratives found in a long line of influential European polemics, identified historically with Gustave Flaubert, Edward William Lane, Arthur de Gobineau and Gustave Lebon, and culminating more recently with neo-reactionaries such as Éric Zemmour and Alain Finkielkraut. On the other hand, the racial and xenophobic content of Houellebecq’s work has often been downplayed, not least of all due to his considerable critical success. A Prix Goncourt winner and awardee of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (Legion d’honneur), Houellebecq is, for many of his readers, a ‘genius’ and a ‘visionary diagnostician of contemporary ills’ (Diken 2007, 57), ‘the author of our time’ (MacCann, 2010), and one who offers ‘a genuinely perceptive and resonant picture’ of ‘Western’ culture and society (Diken 2007). In no less hyperbolic terms, Houellebecq is, for Frank Wynne, ‘Part dialectic, part polemic, part digest of the twentieth century’ (Wynne quoted in Sweeney 2013, 15).

This article does not seek to reconcile disparate evaluations of Houellebecq’s literary merit. Rather, it draws on contemporary political philosophy and critical theory to understand the specific structure of ‘latent Islamophobia’ in Houellebecq’s novels. In the first section, I present a systematic introduction of Houellebecq’s oeuvre and his textual strategies. The second section explores a variety of utterances in Houellebecq’s works vis-à-vis Islam and Muslim communities, and distinguishes between classic and noble-savage Islamophobia. In the third section, I examine the figure of the Western protagonist is depicted in Houellebecq’s work, and in the final discussion, the article links the respective figures of the Muslim and the Westerner to the overall structure of Islamophobia in Houellebecq. Although many readers have suggested that, as an author who frequently denounces dominant cultural norms, Houellebecq’s Islamophobia may be read as ironic or satirical, I argue that it is precisely through his contradictions and inconsistencies that Houellebecq participates in a broad climate of both manifest and latent Islamophobia.

Historical Perspectives on Islamophobia

Islamophobia does not have a single moment of birth, but rather multiple contingent origins, causes and ruptures, and there are different taxonomies of Islamophobia emerging and operating at different historical junctures. In particular, the diversity of scholarship on the histories of European perceptions and representations of Islam points to the need to ‘pluralize’ Islamophobia. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, Islamophobia emerges out of ecclesiastical cannons, occult medieval doctrines, Hellenistic metaphysics, and the homogenization of the asocial and ahistorical culturalized Other (Said, 1978). The figure of John of Damascus (748 AD) is central for one strand of this pre-modern Islamophobia that dismisses ‘Islam as a religious fraud devised from the beginning to facilitate aggression and lust’ (Sardar and Davies, 2002). In the subsequent centuries, the ecclesiastical enquiries, traditions and perspectives led by monks, bishops and their aristocratic patrons ensured that Islam was subjected to scepticism and deemed as a menace to the ‘true faith’, Christianity. Under this logic, Muhammad was the satanic imposter organizing the overturning of the religion of God (Said, 1978, 72), and the Quran was too ‘badly written to be the word of god’ (Varisco 2007, 58). What Edward Dicey calls the ‘recrudescence of fanaticism’ (1907, 130) epitomizes a slightly different strand of pre-modern Islamophobia, one that treats Islam as nothing but a chain of violent, barbaric and savage events. A clerk in the eleventh century, Erchembert, famously wrote that the Muslims had ‘all the appearance of a swarm of bees, but with a heavy hand … they devastated everything’ (Erchembert in Said, 1978, 59). This militarizing Islamophobic idea was erected upon ‘religious zeal, aristocratic pride and noble rapaciousness’ (Azeez, 2015b,123) and a set of values, norms and cognitive dispositions, which demonized and militarized Islam (Azeez, 2015a; 2015; Azeez 2017;). At the height of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, the rise and success of Islam culturally and militarily alarmed and frightened a Europe that was weaker, at least until the eighteenth century.

In this context, some scholars have offered explicitly historical materialist explanations of Islamophobia, including Chris Harman (1994), Beinin (2001) and Faulkner 2006). They argue that the projection of the Muslim as a menace, a threat and a foe to Christendom and Europe, emerges out of tensions between the mode of production and social relations of production. For his part, Faulkner 2006, 1-10) identifies two material causes contributing to Islamophobia in Europe. Firstly, the demonization of Islam was a central mechanism for the necessary violence that allowed for the seizing of surpluses at the expense of peasants and rival ruling classes in Europe and the Middle East. Secondly, the detachment of the aristocratic and monarchical state from civil society has meant that, in order to create a sense of shared collective interest within a nation State, diverse peoples, tribes, towns and classes have been invited to identify with a national ‘Self’ against an alien Other—namely, Islam. The colonial contexts of the French Occupation of Algeria (1830-1962) gave this ‘Othering’ new social and political urgency:

On the one hand, its “bellicose”, “hostile” nature, attributable to a religious “fanaticism” and, on the other, its “inveterate laziness”, results from a reverent “fatalism.” In the first place, French observers argued that the Arabs’ “absolutism” placed them in a “permanent state of war with the infidel, a duty of eternal war that could not be suspended.” Islam served as the main explanatory factor for the horrors of war (beheadings, tortures, mutilations) witnessed by the French expeditionary forces during their conquest of Algeria, horrors attributable to the “vindictive and cruel character” of Arabs “who know no other law than of the strongest” (2008, 7-8).

In the wider context of European colonial projects, Islamophobia has depended on ideological distinctions between the civilized and uncivilized, Arab savage and Christian modern subject, ‘citizen and colonial subject—citizens and indigenes—that fixed racial and political boundaries’ (Traverso 2019, 75). As Silverstein (2004) also shows, French Islamophobia has also been reworked to support xenophobic responses to migrations of Muslim working classes from former French colonies into French urban centres.

At least three contemporary situations define the particular configuration of Islamophobia against which Houellebecqu’s work can read. First is the fear of what Khaled Diab calls the rise of the ‘European Umma’. From Zemmour to Bruce Bawer and Christopher Caldwell, critics of Islam invoke a scenario where internal and external colonization by Muslims will lead to the end of what Niall Ferguson calls a ‘senescent Europe’. The external threat is presented as the invasion of Europe by immigrating Muslims, especially those presented in media narratives as most dangerous—young men. The internal threat comes from the deployment of the supposed ‘expeditionary force of womb-men: a fearsome army of mutant ninja warriors whose function is to go forth and multiply’ (Diab 2009). This ‘Eurabia’ talk has led key French authors, such as Finkielkraut, to declare that ‘the French feel they have become strangers on their own turf’ (2013). Secondly, French readers of Houellebecq are now familiar with tenacious narratives about ‘wild Arab youth gangs’ roaming around European cities; sexual assault and robbery by ‘men of Middle Eastern origin’; and the rise of supposed ‘neighbourhood Sharia’ with the sporadic terror attacks by ‘Islamo-fascists’. This has all led to militia groups patrolling small towns housing asylum seekers under the auspices of protecting white women in Finland; Neo-Nazi protesters in Germany violently occupying town squares and far-right protestors in England, rampaging and vandalizing cities in ‘anti-Islamization’ demonstrations; and, in Italy, legislation that obstructs the future construction of any mosque (Yardly 2016). Thirdly, class inequality, austerity measures, and the withering away of the welfare-state, provides further impetus for the rise of a militant far-right and neo-Nazi parties and movements (e.g. Lega Nord, Sweden Democrats, Alternativ fur Deutschland, National Rally). The outcome has been explosive anti-immigrant sentiments, anti-Muslim paranoia and a powerful emerging force that demands that ‘if we cannot outbreed the Muslims then cull them’, to paraphrase Pankaj Mishra (2009). It is in the midst of these three broad political trends across Europe that Houellebecq makes his debut.

Houellebecq: The Author without a Master Signifier

There are a number of Michel Houellebecqs: the essayist, the poet, the author, the artist, the actor, the comic, the historian, the sociologist. Houellebecq the essayist sets off a remarkable career with his profound meditation H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (1991) and a collection of other essays, such as To Stay Alive—Method (1991), Interventions (1998) and Interventions 2: Traces (2009), while Houellebecq the poet makes his debut with The Pursuit of Happiness (2002), The Art of Struggle (1996) and Renaissance (1999). But Houellebecq the novelist is better known, especially for his despair-filled works, starting with Whatever (1994), then Atomized (1998), Platform (2001), The Possibility of an Island (2005), Map and Territory (2010), and more recently, Submission (2015). There are also the numerous letters, often containing political provocations, between Houellebecq and the Zionist philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, which were subsequently published in 2008 under the title Public Enemies: Duelling Writers Take on Each Other and the World (Mul 2014, 91-110). There is certainly a mystery, a fluidity and dynamism that define Houellebecq’s work, and for Douglas Morrey (2013) and Carrol Sweeney (2013), there is a broad consensus that his work is free flowing and beyond any simple ideology. There are also those who posit that he is a provocateur, a thinker of the Lacanian Real, and that there is no point in locating his stance on any issue. In Todd Kliman, for example, Houellebecq operates ‘outside the bounds of taste or propriety’ solely for the sake of provocation (2015).

The ambiguity of boundaries between Houellebecq and the protagonists of his novels contributes to some of the hermeneutic difficulties here. Keith Reader suggests that Houellebecq intentionally and ‘sedulously cultivates a confusion between himself and his characters’. Both his protagonists and his persona are ‘characterized by the strenuous espousal of politically incorrect activities (chain smoking, periodic drunkenness), vocabulary and positions’ (Reader 2006, 105). Furthermore, and in a similar vein, Brinkmann posits that due to his ability to ‘problematize the boundary of fact and fiction’, we should characterize Houellebecq as a ‘lyrical sociologist’ (Brinkmann 2012, 164), and others agree that Submission sometimes has a ‘documentary feel’ to it (Mccann 2010). Nevertheless, despite an inclination towards social observation in the tradition of Balzac, Houellebecq’s protagonists and characters often appear as fixed types (or archetypes), as indicated in the author’s own comments on his moral schemas:

I tend to think that good and evil exist and that the quantity in each of us is unchangeable. The moral character of people is set, fixed until death. This resembles the Calvinist notion of predestination, in which people are born saved or damned, without being able to do a thing about it (Houellebecq in Hunnewell 2010).

In this context, we can understand Islamophobia in Houellebecq not simply as a detail, among many others, that contributes to thick and varied social descriptions. Rather, Islam is invoked as a ‘moral’ element in Houellebecq’s worlds, and to this theme I now turn.

One version of Houellebecq’s depiction of Islam involves a ‘Heideggerian’ return to the perceived singularity, superiority and uniqueness of the West. This self-identification is built against a constant comparison with non-Western nations, supported in part by Houellebecq’s economicism. Houellebecq has a number of underlying Weberian-like principles that inform his valorisation of the West over the non-West, including (a) ascetic forms of religion, (b) rational conception of law, (c) forms of labour, and (d) the evolution of cities. Houellebecq believes that Islam’s economic model, due to its ‘prebendary’ form of authority, had not been able to attain these characteristics and thus, remains stuck in a pre-capitalist mode of production (Hall 1992, 221). Examples of these themes can be found across Houellebecq’s novels. For instance, in Atomized (Les Particules élémentaires, first published in 1998), a character named Desplechin describes Islam as ‘the most stupid, false and obscure of all religions’ (Houellebecq 2000, 323). In Platform (Plateforme, first published in 2001), protagonist Michel Renault professes that ‘every time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman, had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver of enthusiasm at the thought that it meant one less Muslim’ (Houellebecq 2003, 250). Elsewhere, he presents a succinct analysis via one of the dim-witted ‘Oriental’ characters:

… (he was exaggerating a little, but he was an Oriental and needed to persuade me quickly). ‘Since the appearance of Islam, nothing. An intellectual vacuum, an absolute void. We’ve become a country of flea-ridden beggars. Beggars covered in fleas, that’s what we are. Scum, scum! … ’ … ‘You must remember, cher monsieur … that Islam was born deep in the desert amid scorpions, camels and wild beasts of every order. Do you know what I call Muslims? The losers of the Sahara’ (2003, 251).

In another mise-en-scène, the protagonist, Michel, engaged in a random conversation in a bar, is given a close insight into the workings of ‘Muslim mind’:

The problem with Muslims … was that the paradise promised by the prophet already existed here on earth: there were places on earth where young, available, lascivious girls danced for the pleasure of men, where one could become drunk on nectar and listen to celestial music; … To gain admission, there was absolutely no need to fulfil the seven duties of a Muslim, nor to engage in holy war; all you had to do was pay a couple of dollars … there was no doubt, the Muslim was way doomed: capitalism would triumph (2003, 350).

Elsewhere in Platform, a Jordanian banker tells the protagonist that the Muslims might pretend they were not interested in ‘consumer products and sex’ but ‘secretly, they wanted to be part of the American system: The violence of them was no more than a sign of impotent jealousy’ (Houellebecq 2003, 350). In yet another variation on these themes, the protagonist in Lanzarote (2002) declares that ‘for some time now women didn’t dare go out alone after dark. Islamic fundamentalism had become alarmingly common; like London, Brussels was now a haven for terrorists’ (Houellebecq 2002, 32).

Despite variations in the motivations and circumstances of these characters, consistent threads in the framing of Islam can be found across Houellebecq’s work. In Without god: Michel Houellebecq and materialist horror, Louis Betty suggests that for Houellebecq, ‘the collapse of Islam is historically inevitable, and more and more Muslims become acquainted with the western way of life, they are bound to abandon their “fearful” native religion for freedom of the west’ (2016). Many examples attest to Betty’s interpretation. The protagonist in Platform reports that:

On December 18, the naked mutilated bodies of the young people were thrown from a van, right in the middle of the main square of the town. The young girl had been stoned to death, she had been beaten with extraordinary violence; everywhere her skin was ripped open, her body was little more than a swelling, barely recognisable. The German’s throat had been cut and he had been castrated, his penis and testicles had been stuffed into his mouth (2003, 308).

To the extent that Houellebecq pursues this narrative about Islam, his characters also express some self-awareness of their status as Islamophobes. An example of this is The Possibility of an Island (2005) where protagonist Daniel, speaking in his last comedy stint, declares the following:

My last show was subtitled “100% hateful”—the inscription was emblazoned across the poster, in Eminem-style handwriting; it was in no way hyperbole. From the outset, I got to the subject of the conflict in the Middle East—which had already brought me a few significant media successes—in a manner which, wrote the Le Monde journalist, was “singularly abrasive”. The first sketch, entitled “The Battle of the Tiny Ones”, portrayed Arabs—renamed “Allah’s vermin”—Jews—described as “circumcised fleas”, ”—and even some Lebanese Christians, afflicted with the pleasing sobriquet of “Crabs from the Cunt of Mary.” […] I then widened this to an attack on all forms of rebellion, of nationalist and revolutionary struggle, and in reality against political action itself. Of course, I was developing throughout the show a vein of right-wing anarchy along the lined of “one dead combatant means one less cunt able to fight” […] (Houellebecq, 2005, 38, emphasis in original)

Passages such as these are open to multiple readings. They may simply be a strategy for Houellebecq to voice controversial ideas that reflect his own prejudices, without having to ‘own’ these ideas himself, especially in the wider context of potential legal issues around racist speech (see Betty 2016, 70-71). However, this reading may also overlook the more complex variations in Houellebecq’s characterizations of Islam, which I will call here ‘noble-savage’ Islamophobia.

Initially, this noble-savage mode looks somewhat different to the first. For instance, in Submission, Islam is ostensibly presented, to quote Chris Lehmann, as ‘confident, cultured and intellectually curious’, as something the West ought to admire (Lehmann 2015). Public statements indicate that Houellebecq’s position shifted on both God and Islam after he read the Quran, and after his parents and dog died. For example, he posited in an interview that ‘more and more people can’t stand living without God’ and that Islam ‘turns out to be much better than I thought’ (Houellebecq in Samuel 2015). For some readers, the Franco-Muslim relations and the political status and role of Ben Abbes’s Muslim brotherhood in the novel Submission mirrors the cordial yet uneasy Islamo-Hispanic relation in Andalus. It does not present an Oriental horde that seeks the destruction of a civilization. Rather, it emphasizes reformation and transmutation within: ‘No one, Ben Abbes reminded us [in his televised speech], had benefitted from our republican meritocracy more than they had. He had no wish to undermine a system with he owed everything, even the supreme honour of asking the French people for their vote’ (Houellebecq, 88). Some readers of Submission suggest that, in Submission at least, the Muslim rulers are presented in good light (e.g. Menocal 2009, Gerli 2013), and there are instances where Ben Abbes is a simulacrum of figures like Percival’s ‘noble and literate Muslim half-brother’, Salah-addin, or the ‘Saracen Palomides.’

Nevertheless, Submission goes on to map out the socio-psychic and ideological landscape of a France caught out between postmodern epistemological agnosticism (destruction of the idea of an eternal and universal truth) and the reactionary urge to go back to the One (God and Christianity, ‘Pure Race’). In this context, the Muslim is presented as a noble-savage whose stubborn traditionalism, refusal of the Augustinian distinction between divine salvation and worldly relations, rejection of modernity and science, institutionalized sexism and toxic masculinity is to be admired. Houellebecq satirically suggests that the theological backwardness ascribed to Islam can fill in the ideological and political void faced by the effeminate and hesitant Judeo-Christian West. The relation between Islam and modernity is touched upon in Platform where Islam is presented as unable to incorporate science and modernity. Accordingly, protagonist Michel dismisses Islam as a system of thought (Houellebecq 2003), preferring instead the purported achievements and values of Western civilization, as presented in Platform. It is to the Western ‘subject’ of this discourse that I now turn.

The Western Subject in Houellebecq

Islamophobia is not just what the ‘West’ thinks of Islam, but also the disjunction between the values ascribed to each of these two politico-ontological typologies. In this context, how does the ‘Westerner’ appear in Houellebecq’s worlds? I argue here that we can read in Houellebecq a quintessential late-capitalist subject attached to the system through cynical detachment. For instance, the protagonist in Whatever is a ‘morally torpid thirty-year-old IT consultant’ whose calling in life is to comment cynically on the ‘miserable lives of his colleagues and clients, who, like himself, are sucked into “the struggle” by the prevailing’ methods of a liberal capitalist society (Nelson 2015, 241). Western subjectivity is here placed between nihilism and misery, or between fruitless desire and wholesale submission. Similarly, Winlow detects in Submission a ‘distaste for meta-critique and its cynical, mocking’ of dismissal humanist values (Winlow 2013, 28). In between frozen microwave dinners (chicken Biryani, Tikka Masala and chicken Rogan josh), writing an article on the tyranny of modernity and the significance of Huysman, flicking through Youporn and masturbating, and visiting ‘the hot and up for anything’ Slutty Babeth (Houellebec 2015, 153), protagonist François contemplates whether he wants to die ‘fast, unhappy and alone?’ (203). Hesitant, he replies ‘only kind of’ (203).

Unlike the Muslim who is a Matterian L’Homme-Machine—an automaton dictated by an ancient myth—the protagonists In Houllebecq (e.g. Michel in Platform, François in Submission) present cynical embodiments all discourses. Politically, they detest bureaucracy, but economically, they seem both embroiled within and apathetically critical of neoliberalism (Sweeney 2013, 43). Hesitant, questioning, critical and displeased—yet, they still participate. In Whatever (1998), the nameless protagonist declares, ‘I don’t like this world … The society in which I live disgusts me; advertising sickens me’ (Houellebecq 1998, 19). Similar, in Submission, François expresses irritation with subjects who are ‘hypnotized by the desire for money, [or] the desire for consumer goods’. In Platform, Michel denounces the degenerative subjectivity of Europeans like him:

As a wealthy European, I could obtain food and the services of women more cheaply in other countries; as a decadent European, conscious of my own approaching death. And given over entirely to selfishness, I could see no reason to deprive myself of such things. I was aware, however, that such a situation was barely tenable, that people like me were incapable of ensuring the survival of a society, and perhaps more simply were unworthy of life (Houellebecq 2003, 299).

Houellebecq’s protagonists, such as Michel, are cynical hedonists without clear purpose, for whom Truth-with-a-Capital-T is dead. Their motto is not so much ‘it is not possible’, but rather, ‘even if it is possible, I cannot be bothered’.

Two modes of subjectivity constitute the ontological divide between the Muslim and the Westerner. The former is an irrational, atavistic subject, with an innate tendency to be stagnant, violent and savage. Sometimes this is good, and other times it is bad. Nevertheless, this Muslim subject is always confident, self-assured and committed: a subject who does not think, so much as act. In contrast, the latter Westerner is a meek, hesitant and cowardly, and unwilling to act with any certainty.

Conclusion: Cynicism and Enjoyment

Houellebecq protagonists could be—and have been—read as cynics that refuse to follow the interpellating hail of power, including the hail that demands conformity to the liberal ideals of egalitarianism. But cynicism can still have a political structure. The ideological depiction of the Westerner in Houellebecq’s novels point towards what Slavoj Žižek calls ‘enlightened false consciousness’ (Žižek 1994). Ideology of this kind, suggests Žižek, ‘no longer has the pretension [of being] a lie experienced as truth [by the duped subject] … It is no longer meant, even by its authors, to be taken seriously’ (Žižek 1989, 30). Along these lines, Houellebecqian subjects may be understood as iconoclasts for whom ideology functions obliquely through the refusal of clearly demarcated ideological positions. Comical, incompetent and hysterical subjects claim not to take themselves seriously, and in this disavowal, can become uniquely dangerous ‘crypto’ or ‘pseudo’ fascists (Žižek 1994). On this reading, Islamophobia in Houellebecq’s novels functions not simply as a set of values or prejudices, but perhaps more insidiously, as a site of enjoyment. By unashamedly saying that which ought not to be said and thereby taking pleasure in the violation of a taboo, the narrator may come to appear as more worldly, cosmopolitan, and modern cynic transgressing existing lines and exposing the theft of enjoyment in the material realities of liberal democratic world.

Nevertheless, even if one reads Houellebecq as a satirist who plays with Islamophobia as one of many traits belonging to the postmodern subject of contemporary France, the two fundamental attributes of the Houellebecq’s worlds remain in place. Firstly, identities are ontologically fixed. Although the Muslim and the non-Muslim may occupy the same space, the two typologies live in different worlds that do not mix or produce ‘hybrid’ cultural practices. There are no transcultural exchanges or genuinely plural spaces. Secondly, the Westerner is positioned as the normal subject of contemporary and ‘enlightened’ consciousness, while the Muslim belongs to a world of anachronistic traditions. According to the logics presented in the novels considered, these latter can only be alien and therefore Other to modernity. For this reason, while the non-Muslim protagonists in Houellebecq may adopt a cynical position in relation to Islam, no such equivalent position is available to the Muslim characters vis a vis either Muslim or non-Muslim communities.

Islamophobia is not a monochromatic technique of subjugation and control. There are many ‘Islamophobias’, each with distinct points of origin and modes of expression. In the case of Houellebecq, I have argued that Islamophobia is articulated through a distinct, late-capitalist cynicism that, while sometimes able to acknowledge its own status as racialising and racist, nevertheless contributes to the centring of non-Muslim identities and the perpetuation of anti-Muslim anxieties. That this form of Islamophobia is, as I have suggested from the outset, latent rather than manifest, does not mitigate its capacity to contribute to the more manifest forms of anti-Muslim hatred found within and beyond contemporary French public cultures.