French author causes storm by attacking Islam

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France's most acclaimed young novelist has provoked a storm of controversy ­ and faces possible prosecution ­ after describing Islam as "stupid" and "dangerous" and writing of "enthusiasm" for the murder of Palestinian children.

Michel Houellebecq, 43, a veteran controversialist, rocketed to the top of the French fiction best-sellers' list this week with his third novel, Plateforme, which is set amid the tourist industry, including the sex-based tourist industry, in Thailand.

The heroine of the book dies in an Islamic terrorist attack on a night-club. Her lover ­ called Michel like the author ­ launches into a diatribe against Islam and Arabs. "Each time that I hear that a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a pregnant Palestinian woman has been shot in the Gaza Strip, I shiver with enthusiasm," the fictional Michel says.

The passage was initially defended by French literary critics as expressing the views of a character in a book rather than its author. However, Houellebecq embarrassed his supporters in an interview with a literary magazine, published on Friday, in which he expressed personal contempt for the Islamic religion.

In the interview with Lire, he said that he rejected all mono-theistic religions but the "most stupid religion" was Islam. To read the Koran was to be "shocked", he said. "Islam is a dangerous religion, and always has been," but "luckily", he said, it is condemned to disappear because it is being undermined by capitalism.

Later in the interview, Mr Houellebecq ­ whose mother converted to Islam, before handing him over to his paternal grandmother at the age of six ­ expressed his sympathy for the French Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. He said that Marshall Philippe Pétain, the head of the Vichy government, was "preferable to [General Charles] de Gaulle", who led the Free French forces from London.

If he had been alive at the time, the author said, he would have been a Vichy sympathiser, "who tried to save Jews".

The insensitivity, and incoherence of this remark in particular, has persuaded some French commentators that Houellebecq is ­ not for the first time ­ deliberately goading the French literary and social establishment. They suggest that his remarks are intended to boost sales of his book and are best ignored.

Others, including leaders of the French Islamic community, say that Houellebecq should be prosecuted for breaking the French law that forbids "the provocation of hatred against a group of persons on the grounds of their religion". Unlike the author Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses, they say, Houellebecq's comments ­ in the book and in his interview ­ amount to an expression of personal contempt for Islam and its followers.

The author, who lives in a former bed-and-breakfast hotel on the Island of Bere, off the coast of County Cork, has refused to make any further comment until he appears on the France Culture radio station on Monday.

Houellebecq, once a junior official in the computer department of the French parliament, shot to literary stardom in 1998 with his novel Les Particules Eleméntaires ("Elementary Particles), which is a mordant attack on the post-hippy, post-1968 generation. The book has been translated into 25 languages.

Houellebecq, like most French intellectuals, thinks Western society is decadent and doomed but, unlike most French intellectuals, he blames the libertarianism of the 1960s and 1970s as much as he blames capitalism and the consumer society. His work, written in dispassionate but technically brilliant French, dwells on sex and violence but also on abstruse scientific subjects, as well as social and political questions.

His new book, written in the same deadpan style, suggests that love between men and women in Western society is no longer possible. Feminists, among others, are to blame. The only logical solution is sexual tourism, in which Western men ­ and increasingly women ­ seek the emotional and physical fulfilment that they are denied at home by travelling to less socially and emotionally repressed countries in the Third World.

In an interview with the newspaper Le Monde before the present controversy, Houellebecq said he wished that people would not ask for ­ or take any interest in ­ his personal opinions.

It was "typical of the times" that he was constantly being dragged into political arguments, he said. His writing should stand for itself.

"Personally, I think that I write well. I'm rather proud of it. That being said, it seems I have a pig's flair for sniffing out whatever is rotten in the society around me," he said.