In France, a debate about Islam, European values and extremism has emerged again. The trigger was a conversation in the magazine “Front Populaire”, which the publisher, the philosopher Michel Onfray, had with the internationally renowned writer Michel Houellebecq. The rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris, Chems-Edinne Hafiz, is now taking legal action against the printed statements: He filed a lawsuit against Houellebecq for “inciting hatred against Muslims”.
The stumbling block is a 45-page dialogue that the writer Michel Houellebecq and the philosopher Michel Onfray published in late November in a special issue of Front Populaire with the title question “Fin de l’Occident?” (The end of the West?). After this sparked widespread public and media debate last month, Chems-Edinne Hafiz, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, took tougher action. He filed a lawsuit against Houellebecq for “inciting hatred against Muslims.”
The conversation between the two French intellectuals covers many topics, often with a satirical undertone. In addition to the conspiracy theory of the “anti-Occidental Great Exchange”, popular among right-wing thinkers, it also contains the thesis of a national rebellion: “When entire territories are under Islamist control, I think there will be acts of resistance. There will be assassinations and shootings in mosques and in cafes frequented by Muslims, in short: inverted Bataclans,” says Houellebecq. The provocative writer draws a dividing line between Muslims and mainstream society – and accuses the migrants from the south of undermining French society. “I think the French native population does not want the Muslims to assimilate, but that they stop stealing from us and attacking us, in short, that they stop violence, that they respect the law and the people. It would also be a good solution if they just go away.”
Houellebecq’s love of provocation is legendary. He has already expressed admiration for Putin’s illiberal system in Russia and hailed Trump as one of the best presidents the US ever had. Islam also played a role in his novels. Most prominently in “Submission” from 2015. In it, Houellebecq imagines a Muslim takeover of power in France – whether for the protagonist’s weal or woe remains dazzlingly ambivalent. The author obviously does not allow himself so much differentiation in his political statements.
After the attacks in Bali and “Charlie Hebdo” as well as the “Yellow Wests” protests – events that are predicted in detail in published novels – the writer is credited with downright clairvoyant abilities. Shortly after the conversation with Onfray was published, three Kurds were murdered in Paris by a French racist.
Like some European intellectuals of the “Nouvelle Droit”, Onfray was initially a left-libertarian existentialist who once built up the state-independent “Université Populaire de Caen”, but in recent years he has mutated into a right-wing supporter of a sovereign France.
Hafiz, a respected lawyer with an Algerian family background and numerous offices in the service of liberal Islam, sees the criminal complaint he has now filed with the public prosecutor’s office as spurred on by a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights. Hafiz considers Houellebecq’s comments to be “unacceptable” and of “amazing brutality”. He opens up a fundamental difference between people of French descent and Muslims “to assert that the latter could never be genuinely French”. This general exclusion of a population group leads to a call for hatred against Muslims and makes any discussion impossible.
The rector of the Great Mosque in Paris is also not without controversy: Although he is considered a moderate representative of Islam, he has also come close to political Islam through dubious statements in the past. Hafiz was a member of the executive office of the “Conseil français du culte musulman” from 2003 to 2021 and is one of the signatories of the “Charter of Principles for an Islam in France” of January 2021. This states that the rules of the republic also apply to Islam , their public impact signing was an important sign against Islamism. The Republic thanked Hafiz, who is an officer in the Legion of Honor and the Order of Merit.
This good understanding was severely disrupted last summer when Hafiz quoted the following hadith: “The believers will kneel while the unbelievers will not be able to, their backs will remain stiff, and if any of them wish to kneel, they will turn their neck the other way, as the unbelievers of this world did, as opposed to the believers.” That’s what Hafiz tweeted the day after the assassination of Salman Rushdie. The tweet quickly disappeared, but the damage was done; a letter of support to Rushdie only partially repaired it. Hafiz is also one of the close advisors to French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who has already unsettled French Muslims with many statements.
As a lawyer by profession, however, Hafiz also knows that the success of his lawsuit is not guaranteed. As early as 2002, he filed one against Houellebecq, when he described Islam as the “stupidest of all religions” in the context of the publication of his novel “Platform”. Houellebecq won at the time. Hafiz’s chances could be better this time: Houellebecq no longer attacks a religion as a doctrine, which French law allows, as he did in 2002, but attacks a population group that he generally portrays as problematic – his defense should could be much more difficult.
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