In The Atlantic, the essay “The Rise of Anti-Liberalism” starts off promising, but quickly goes off the rails. This is likely due to the writer’s name being Shadi Hamid.
Submission is still very clearly a dystopian novel—an increasingly popular genre these days—but, more than that, it is a meditation on the aimlessness of late-stage Western liberalism, where there is nothing much to be believe in, and nothing much to fight for, except the never-ending expansion of personal freedom. The controversy aside, Submission is strangely intriguing. Houellebecq is among a growing number of Western intellectuals flirting with anti-liberalism: Perhaps liberalism is not the unmitigated good most of us are raised to believe it is.
So far, so good. But then the last sentence of the above paragraph reads:
In an odd way, though, liberalism’s critics end up saying more about the resilience of liberalism than its demise.
Then we get this most strange passage:
Wherever I go and wherever I’ve lived, there are others, from all over the world, who I can easily connect with—“anywheres” of the center-left and center-right who share a similar disposition. They don’t really have a local community or “home” they feel particularly strongly about. They tend to have graduate degrees; be interested in politics; speak various languages; avoid sports-related conversations; and be vaguely privileged financially (it’s never entirely clear how privileged). Perhaps most importantly, they are suspicious of happy people but especially earnest people. No one’s particularly religious, but if they are, they’re probably members of a minority group, usually Muslims or Jews, which makes it okay. No one’s perfect, of course, but such are the people of my “tribe.”
The sheer diversity can be overwhelming—white Christian males can be hard to find—but the diversity, paradoxically, reinforces a kind of cultural homogeneity.
Where to begin. Muslims and Jews depicted as not tribes themselves, but part of an atomized, anomic, cultureless, and placeless “tribe”? That is laughable.
Furthermore, in a country founded by white Christian males, white Christian males are nonetheless “hard to find” in the author’s no doubt affluent, blue-state, metro, ‘diverse’, social milieu. Hamid conflates his elite enclave, devoid of white conservatives, as ‘all of America’.
What is rather astonishing is how badly Hamid misreads Houellebecq’s novel Submission.
The emphasis on polygamy in Houellebecq’s depiction of Islam is often gratuitous. But there is also a sense of envy, that Islam retains a vitality, conviction, and self-assuredness that Western liberalism and Western Christianity lost long ago. (In his real life, Houellebecq, who once called Islam “the stupidest religion,” has since read the Quran and apparently developed an appreciation for Islam, contributing to his own epiphany of sorts. “When, in the light of what I know,” Houellebecq says, “I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.”)
A “sense of envy”? In the novel, the protagonist François’ does not envy Islam as much as he sees its eventual ascent to dominance as inexorable, due to the relative weakness of today’s Christianity as a source of identity. With his academic career at risk, François eventually makes a calculated “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” decision at the novel’s climax.
Legally based religious systems—which only Islam among the largest religions potentially offers—quite consciously seek to restrict choice in the name of virtue and salvation. It is no mistake that Houellebecq initially intended his book to be about a conversion to Christianity, but it’s telling that François—to some extent a stand-in for Houellebecq’s own fantasies—quickly grows bored after spending two days in a Benedectine abbey.
In the novel, François is not “bored” at the abbey, but rather simply cannot generate the sort of epiphany his late-convert hero Joris-Karl Huysmans was able to muster. The moral of François’ leaving the abbey is not one of “boredom” but of the impossibility of today’s Liberated Rational Man (surrounded by the cultural and political institutions that Reason has brought) throwing overboard everything he’s been taught and lives among, and through some Kierkegaardian leap of faith instantly becoming a Believer.