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A blasphemy trial out of the 17th century
May 29, 2002 11:43 AM   Subscribe

A blasphemy trial out of the 17th century "Let's be clear. Criticising the precepts of modern Islam and the resultant actions of its adherents is not racist. Philosophically, it is the precise opposite of racism. It is an intellectual position arrived at through a consideration of ideas, rather than a cruel and irrational prejudice based upon the colour of someone's skin." Rod Liddle discusses the upcoming prosecution of French writer Michel Houellebecq for a comment he made about Islam in an interview. Some interesting points here about the wider context, in which Houellebecq has been attacked for the beliefs of the fictional characters he creates.
posted by jonpollard (23 comments total)

 
Seems like progress on the muslim side though, "an action brought by four French Muslim organisations," in the old days they would have just declared a Fatwa. This feels like they figured that was a bad policy, the new plan, let's sue instead. I hope this has the effect of popularising the writer, ala Rushdie, but it's sad he has to go thru this crap.
posted by bittennails at 11:57 AM on May 29, 2002


He needs little popularizing in Europe at this point in his writing career. Odd that Lousis Farakan can make so many obnoxious remarks and no one thinks to sue him but rather dismisses his claims to moral superiority. And France! Give back the Statute of Liberty!
posted by Postroad at 12:14 PM on May 29, 2002


During the French Revolution, all the smart, rich people were killed, leaving behind all the dumb, poor people, whose descendants today are making a spectacle of themselves.
posted by mikegre at 12:38 PM on May 29, 2002


Ah. So if I say all Jews are (insert nasty, bigoted comments here) then its ok as I've obviously come to that conclusion through a consideration of ideas, rather than a cruel and irrational prejudice based upon the colour of someone's skin. That comment was obviously on the level of the irrational prejudice rather than the consideration.

There has been a move in Britain to classify attacks on muslims under 'racist' type crimes, especially in the wake of the mess last year (I'm not sure whether its law yet though). It could be argued that although religions aren't racially heteredox (well, in principle - most Hindus are Indian etc), the way of life of the adherents of some religions follow is different from that considered the norm in society, and are thus culturally heterodox (I think heterodox means differing from the norm? Can someone correct me if I'm wrong). Thats what caused a lot of mistrust of the muslim community recently, in a similar way to which communities such as the Jews have traditionally been mistrusted - the way of life is one not familiar or in accordance with the 'norm'. All that mistrust also makes some muslims touchy..

American Psycho was a good book, and The Satanic Verses amusing and interesting (although blasphemous and obviously offensive), but Atomised (what kind of translation is that of the title???) I found kinda, erm, turd. Enduring my bottom. Or maybe I just wasn't clever enough to understand its sophistication? Hmm..

I wonder if they asked him to apologise for the remark? If he refused to then he's a bigot.
posted by Mossy at 12:42 PM on May 29, 2002


In many ways this is like the Pim Fortuyn controversy in the Netherlands. Whether or not you agree with his politics, his comments on Islam were anything but racist: they were a criticism of that religion's own intolerance.

Houellebecq's commments are even less worthy of a lawsuit or similar action, as he is not a representative of a government or political party, and not trying to justify actions that people might see as racist. He's just a fiction writer.

And, of course, there's the whole problem of regulating speech in this manner: does the fact that someone takes a comment as racist mean that it effectively is? Where can you reasonably draw the line?
posted by lackutrol at 12:44 PM on May 29, 2002


Houellebecq is being charged with "inciting racial hatred"; while the author of the article argues that Houellebecq didn't actually incite racial hatred, it's interesting that France allows a party to bring such a claim. It looks like BTW, Mossy: Houellebecq said Islam was "the most stupid of all religions," not that Muslims are stupid or that there is a "racial" group that both (1) corresponds with faith in Islam; and (2) is inferior. The author of the piece was correct that making a statement about a system of beliefs is different than saying someone is inferior because of an immutable characteristic.
posted by subgenius at 1:11 PM on May 29, 2002


"I wonder if they asked him to apologise for the remark? If he refused to then he's a bigot."

What nonsense.
Someone who refuses to apologise is merely unapologetic.
Although, if apology makes you feel better, I am sorry that Islam is the most stupid of all religions.
posted by Catch at 1:32 PM on May 29, 2002


I've read both translated Houellebecq novels, and it seems fairly obvious that he (and by extension his characters) hates everyone equally. Under what sort of legal protocol are these Muslim groups suing? The article doesn't say. How can they prove he's incited violence?

To me, Houellebecq always comes across as a bit unhinged in his interviews. Why does anyone take him seriously? I find it odd that he's so terrified by the threats against him that he's promising never to write again. Funny that someone so normally outspoken and strident be so easily smacked down. Funny that he wouldn't regard this as the ultimate marketing ploy.

During the whole American Psycho hoopla, Bret Easton Ellis, in one of his whingeing, defensive interviews, said something to the effect of, "The next thing I write, Amy Tan's gonna call it 'a big hug of a book.'" Meaning that he was tired of being slammed for his contraversial writing. Of course, the only thing he came up with since then was Glamorama, currently used by most fans to shore up wobbly table legs. Perhaps Houellebecq knows he's shot his load and is using this as an excuse to quietly secede from the literary scene.
posted by cowboy_sally at 1:34 PM on May 29, 2002


An aside:

Mr. Liddle states: But the most enduring novels of the past 20 years - American Psycho, The Satanic Verses and Atomised - all had their enraged opponents, howling from the sidelines with a can of petrol in their hands.

Maybe these were the most controversial, but I certainly wouldn't call them the most enduring. I've read two of the three and I wouldn't place them on the enduring level over many other books that I have read.
posted by trox at 2:05 PM on May 29, 2002 [1 favorite]


Ok Catch, I agree that someone who refuses to apologise would indeed be unapologetic (by definition no less). Ok, maybe bigot is the wrong word (someone who's intolerant of any opinion differing from his own), but I would like to hope that he just said this off the spur rather than meaning it, and hence a sorry would do. Um, from what you said do you believe that Islam is the most stupid of religions then? Feel free to e-mail me why you think this and I'll counter with why I think its not. Thnx..

subgenius, I realise that he didn't group Muslims as a racial group, as I tried to point out though, there is a case for arguing that inflammatory remarks on the basis of one's religion is equivalent to on the basis of one's skin, and thats the basis on which they will be bringing this legal action.

Besides, if we take a religion as being a way of life, and then characterise a religion as being the 'most' stupid of these, then wouldn't that reflect on the adherents of this religion? ie this is inferring that there are inherent flaws within the religion which would denote an aspect of inferiority to other religions/non-religious systems (including his own, whatever that may be).

I know there is no free speech in Britain, does anyone know if France is similar in that respect (if you incite to violence etc, you can get done, hence Louis Farrakhan's repeated failures in being allowed to come over here).
posted by Mossy at 2:30 PM on May 29, 2002


I don't think that Islam is stupid. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to find _any_ religion stupid (at least categorically so). But Michel has the right to his opinion... an opinion that (at least on its face) isn't racist in the least.

There's not a one-to-one corrolary between Islam and any single race. In fact, if memory serves, Islam is pretty solidly a pan-global religion with all the race groups (except for perhaps Native Americans and Artic tribal groups) having solid representation.

I don't know... sounds like a mountain from a mole hill.

Of course, that said, it apparently is illegal in France to build mole hills. Shame, really... makes the world a little less interesting. Besides, I'd rather know what someone's thinking than have them lurking around too afraid to speak their minds.
posted by silusGROK at 3:05 PM on May 29, 2002


for all my pro-europe talk, it is exactly this kind of crap that makes me glad to be in america.

The French justice system, by allowing it to proceed, is playing the part of supplicant whore

i'm all for being PC, and even hate-crimes laws etc, but for fucks sake, you can't make it illegal for people to not be pc if they don't want to be. jesus! oh, and incitement to violence my ass if by some miracle you incite me to violence, that violence is my fault. this comes back to my whole view that europe is racist in its unwillingness to assign responsibility to racial and religious minorities; instead seeing the majority as the only moral group to which the rule of law applies.

it is an incredibly racist government that can pass a law blaming a majority-race person for inciting violence in an minority-race person. it dehumanizes them, and implies that the actual violent offender is not capable of attaining the same moral standards the majority is. it fashions the offender as an object that it controlled by the majority to do their will. you don't blame the gun, you blame the person pulling the trigger. and in england you don't blame the arab, you blame the white person that said something to incite.
posted by rhyax at 3:05 PM on May 29, 2002


"and in england you don't blame the arab, you blame the white person that said something to incite"

I must be living in a different England then.
posted by Saima at 3:34 PM on May 29, 2002


making a statement about a system of beliefs is different than saying someone is inferior because of an immutable characteristic.

What part of that do people not understand?

from what you said do you believe that Islam is the most stupid of religions then? Feel free to e-mail me why you think this and I'll counter with why I think its not. Thnx..

You are missing the point, mossy, which is that everyone is entitled to think that Islam, or anything else, is stupid. That belief may be right, it may be wrong; either way, they are entitled to it, and to express it or not express it as they so choose, unapologetically.

Doing so may well make them unpopular with certain people, but being popular is not the be-all, end-all reason for existence.
posted by rushmc at 3:41 PM on May 29, 2002


What would be the result if they won the case? Would it only be illegal in France to criticize Islam, or would all forms of theological critique be banned? Would religious fundamentalism then be enshrined and perpetuated by the state?

I think most of the Bible is fiction, does that mean that I think Jews and Christians are stupid?

During the French Revolution, all the smart, rich people were killed, leaving behind all the dumb, poor people, whose descendants today are making a spectacle of themselves.

They weren't that smart then, were they, mikegre?
posted by norm29 at 4:19 PM on May 29, 2002


Yeah, I know people should be entitled to do so, but the fact of the matter is that free speech isn't a part of the law in European countries - if I say a certain group of people is inferior/stupid/criticise them, I can be prosecuted for incitement (although I wouldn't cos nobody gives a damn about lil ol me). So its not just a matter of popularity - I just wondered if an apology would make the angry people less angry and leave him alone (suppose that bigot remark was a bit flip, my bad).

Oh, and I was just making sure that if Catch thought he would have somewhere to have his opinion changed if he really thought that - some people have funny ideas y'know :)
posted by Mossy at 4:19 PM on May 29, 2002


I just wondered if an apology would make the angry people less angry and leave him alone (suppose that bigot remark was a bit flip, my bad).

Understood. Just be aware that what you may see as compromise and conciliation, others will see as capitulation and cowardice. I, for one, would never apologize for anything I had done that was not wrong. I do not hold myself responsible for injuries to people's "feelings" when I am in the right (unless my original purpose was to set out to hurt them, but then, I don't do that, either). People must control their own emotional responses to the truth.
posted by rushmc at 5:11 PM on May 29, 2002


Thing is, I'll say any damn thing. But I realise I'm an unprincipled oddity.
My point, I guess: an insincere apology (like mine) is no good to anyone. If Houellebecq believes that Islam is the most stupid religion, there is no way he could sincerely apologise for saying so.
I just wondered if an apology would make the angry people less angry and leave him alone
I think it would be more likely to teach the angry people that they can use 'anger' to get what they want.
All this expecting apologies, the chance to change someone's opinions by email, Mossy, seems like you are consistently saying to others back down.

And that seems kinda intolerant.
posted by Catch at 5:11 PM on May 29, 2002


Everyone knows Hindu is the stupidest religion.
posted by fuq at 5:47 PM on May 29, 2002


Ahem. 'Most stupid'. Or I guess 'la plus stupide'?
I find it disappointing that his opinion was as bland as "most stupid". There is so much scope and depth in disparaging remarks, especially about religion.
For example, this issue would be far more interesting if he had said "Sikhs have the least practical headgear", or "Mormons have the worst ideas about architecture", or even 'Ils sont fous, ces musulmans!'
Now that would be something to sink your teeth into.
posted by Catch at 6:18 PM on May 29, 2002


French surrender!

(Hey, it had to be done...)
posted by dagny at 10:17 PM on May 29, 2002


France has the most stupid speech laws.
posted by delmoi at 10:22 PM on May 29, 2002


Surely that should be 'France surrenders' dagny? :)

I wouldn't apologise to someone if I thought I hadn't done anything wrong, ie a comment on a viewpoint I had come to after a lil bit of consideration. I would, however, apologise if I had made an offhand remark that caused offense - everyone is susceptible to the odd bit of hyperbole when they get into a flow. For example, "Sikhs have the least practical headgear" is more likely to be a offhand comment than a vested opinion. I just hoped that this comment fell into category a) the offhand remark. If not, eh, I don't care, should be an interesting trial with tables of religious stupidity and suchlike.

People must control their own emotional responses to the truth. Maybe these organisations are somewhat sceptical as to the veracity of this statement?

As for my intolerance, I've changed people's viewpoints by e-mail before, I've changed people's viewpoints by discussion before. I've had my viewpoints changed by both as well. As rushmc said, we're all entitled to our own opinion, but there's no reason for us not to be openminded about changing that opinion. Enough babbling from me..
posted by Mossy at 2:09 AM on May 30, 2002


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