Submission: A Novel by Michel Houellebecq

Houellebecq is one of France’s leading novelists, maybe their leading novelist. He is known for being controversial. This is the only book of his I’ve read. It made me want to read another.

The story is told from the point of view of a middle-aged professor of literature at the Sorbonne. He is relatively well-known in academic circles, but feels his career is at a dead end. He has frequent affairs with his female students. He is especially attached to one young woman, but otherwise feels lonely.

The novel is set in the near future. What may have made it controversial is that Houellebecq imagines that a new political party is having great success in France. It’s the Muslim Brotherhood. An election is coming and it looks as if they may win. Nobody knows what will happen. The professor isn’t really interested in politics, but he’s nervous about his future in a country that appears to be rapidly changing.

The arabic word islam means “submission” or “submission to the will of God”. I suppose Submission is satire, and it’s funny at times, but it addresses serious themes. I only wish I had understood more of the cultural references. The author refers to lots of French historical and literary figures, as well as current politicians and pundits. If I’d known who he was talking about, I’d have appreciated more of the jokes.

The New Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL)

I haven’t been paying much attention to the latest crisis in the Middle East. That’s the one involving the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Levant, by the way, includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus and part of southern Turkey.

As of now, the Islamic State is more of a military force than a nation. They’re fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, mainly funded by sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Their apparent goal is to create a new Muslim empire or “caliphate”. So far, they control significant portions of Iraq and Syria. Lately, they’ve been putting extreme pressure on the Yezidis or Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking ethnic group in northern Iraq. The Yezidis aren’t Muslims. They practice an ancient religion related to Zoroastrianism. To protect the Yezidis, the United States is now carrying out airlifts and airstrikes. President Obama doesn’t see a quick end to this latest conflict or American involvement.

Here are excerpts from an article by Patrick Cockburn in the London Review of Books:

As the attention of the world focused on Ukraine and Gaza, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured a third of Syria in addition to the quarter of Iraq it had seized in June. The frontiers of the new Caliphate declared by ISIS on 29 June are expanding by the day and now cover an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by at least six million people… In a few weeks of fighting in Syria, ISIS has established itself as the dominant force in the Syrian opposition….The Caliphate may be poor and isolated but its oil wells and control of crucial roads provide a steady income in addition to the plunder of war.

The birth of the new state is the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War. Yet this explosive transformation has created surprisingly little alarm internationally or even among those in Iraq and Syria not yet under the rule of Isis. Politicians and diplomats tend to treat Isis as if it is a Bedouin raiding party that appears dramatically from the desert, wins spectacular victories and then retreats to its strongholds leaving the status quo little changed. Such a scenario is conceivable but is getting less and less likely as Isis consolidates its hold on its new conquests in an area that may soon stretch from Iran to the Mediterranean.

The very speed and unexpectedness of its rise make it easy for Western and regional leaders to hope that the fall of ISIS and the implosion of the Caliphate might be equally sudden and swift. But all the evidence is that this is wishful thinking and the trend is in the other direction, with the opponents of ISIS becoming weaker and less capable of resistance…

With weapons taken from the Iraqi army and the seizure of Syrian oil and gasfields, ISIS no longer needs so much outside help. For America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of ISIS and the Caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden.

Calling the rise of ISIS or ISIL “the ultimate disaster” for the United States and Europe sounds more like overstatement than British understatement, but the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state that aims to forge a new Muslim empire intolerant of religious minorities certainly isn’t good news. The vacuum we created by getting rid of Saddam Hussein seems to be filling up. 

What It Means to Really Believe

At some point along the way, most philosophers came to the conclusion that having a belief isn’t simply an internal state of the believer. One might suppose otherwise — that in order for Mary to believe some proposition P, she simply needs to be in the appropriate internal mental state, perhaps one in which she is silently saying to herself “You know, I really believe P”.

There is some truth to the internalist view. After all, we sometimes reach conclusions without announcing them to the world. Archimedes could have stepped into his bathtub, noticed how the water rose and immediately acquired a belief about how to measure the volume of irregularly-shaped objects — while keeping his mouth firmly shut, saving “Eureka!” for another time and place.

One problem with this view, however, is that it seems wrong to say that Mary believes P if her behavior is (consistently) inconsistent with believing P. Say, for example, that Mary claims to believe that all Americans should pay their required income tax, yet fails to pay any tax at all on her extremely high income. When the IRS comes calling, she is nowhere to be found. Mary might loudly proclaim that she believes in paying her income tax — she often says to herself “We Americans should all pay what we owe to the IRS” — but we would be remiss if we didn’t reply: “You claim to believe that, Mary, but your behavior shows that you really don’t”.

I was recently moved to think about what it means to really believe by an exchange of views on an Internet message board. The subject of this particular board is a certain fairly well-known musician. During a recent discussion, a Christian gentleman, veering seriously off-topic, wrote the following:

I got on here before and some people complained, saying that I shouldn’t be using the forum for a place to discuss God. It started a controversy. The people here who go to church etc, and those who don’t. It starts a conflict. That’s the way witnessing is. That’s the way it always is. I won’t continually use the forum here to witness day to day, etc. That’s not the only purpose of the community here. People have a right to get on here and talk about music without someone telling them that they need God. I understand that. But I can’t deny God when I need to mention Him.

And later:

We don’t have to be preaching every minute of the day…. I am getting ready to take a trip up the road to the place I go to see flowers, etc. I don’t feel that I am lost because of it. There is plenty of time for me to enjoy my life, whether it is music, art or whatever, being with family, etc.

The question that occurred to me was: how should a person behave if he really, truly believes that the Christian God exists and that each of us is going to face an eternity of paradise or damnation? How much time should a person spend “witnessing”, i.e. doing God’s work by trying to convince other people of the truth of Christianity, so that they might enjoy a good afterlife? Should one witness only when the mood strikes? An hour a week? One day a week? Five days a week? Every waking hour?

Charles Stanley, of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, put it this way: “God’s plan for enlarging His kingdom is so simple — one person telling another about the Savior. Yet we’re busy and full of excuses. Just remember, someone’s eternal destiny is at stake.”

Here’s another example. If you truly believe that every fertilized egg is a full-fledged human being, so that abortion is murder plain and simple, what should you do to stop abortions? If you really believe that there are murders being committed every day in a neighborhood clinic, is it enough to express disapproval to your friends, or to show up once a week outside the clinic and try to convince women not to go inside? Or should you be doing something much more dramatic? If you believed that children were being murdered every day in the back room of your local 7-11, what would you do to stop it from happening?

I go back and forth between atheism and agnosticism (do I believe that God doesn’t exist? Or do I strongly doubt it?). So I’m asking these questions as an outsider. I’m not trying to live according to the supposed dictates of the divine ruler of all creation. But I wonder why more Christians don’t behave like those Asian monks, giving up their worldly pursuits, leaving their loved ones and spending all of their time preaching and praying, relying on donations to survive (remember that comment about rich people finding it terribly difficult to get into heaven).

Do serious Christians truly believe what they claim to believe? I think the answer is “yes”, but why don’t they behave more often as if they do?

One answer is that they think some level of prescribed behavior is “good enough”. It isn’t necessary to be a perfect Christian. You just need to meet some minimum requirements in order to get to heaven, so why do more? It’s only right that we should enjoy life while we can, even if that means a few more souls end up in Hell and some more babies are murdered. 

Another possibility is that the seriously religious don’t feel it’s necessary to be their brother’s keeper. So long as they (and their loved ones, perhaps) are doing the right thing, they don’t have a responsibility to make sure that everyone else does the right thing too. It would be wonderful if lots of other people could be saved and go to heaven. It would be wonderful if there were no more abortions. In fact, it’s your Christian duty to do what you can to make those wonderful things happen, but only within reason. It isn’t necessary to devote your whole life to other people’s problems. 

Or maybe they just haven’t thought too hard about this kind of thing. They grew up in the church, saw how other Christians behaved and followed their lead. That’s human nature. 

P.S. — I could have written about Islam instead of Christianity, of course. It’s doubtful that all Muslims try to be perfect Muslims. Unfortunately, a tiny minority of Muslims take their religion extremely seriously, mixing it with politics to violent effect.