Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission provides a glimpse of the first post-secular society, imagining a future France that gives in to the rising influence of Islam. History is often prologue, however, and though Houellebecq’s work is satire, his skewering of French elites recalls his countryman Alexis de Tocqueville, who a century and a half ago observed that nobles of the ancien régime “possessed annoying privileges, enjoyed rights that people found irksome but they safeguarded the public order, dispensed justice, had the law upheld, came to the help of the weak and directed public business.” But when “the nobility ceased to conduct these affairs, the weight of its privileges seemed more burdensome and its very existence was, in the end, no longer understandable.”
These observations about France’s past and future may strike a familiar note amid America’s current populist resurgence. The notion of burdensome elites, now separated from the common man by geography and interest, is not a mere fact of eighteenth-century history, nor the view of a dystopian future. If it is an indictment of the cowardly, self-interested elites of France, it is an indictment of America’s elites as well—whose station and privilege is no longer understandable.
In Houellebecq’s tale, France’s effete and enervated elites acquiesce to the ascendant power, Islam, in order that they may remain elites. Francois, Houellebecq’s loathsome protagonist, can find little reason to go on living other than satisfying libidinous urges. Disillusioned and thwarted, he sets out in the footsteps of his dissertation subject (and would-be inspiration), Joris-Karl Huysmans, in search of spiritual rebirth, only to find that Christian culture—for him and implicitly for Europe—no longer possesses the capacity for its own regeneration.
Francois, reminiscent of Meursault in Camus’ The Stranger, is a thoroughly narcissistic protagonist who takes no interest in others, beset by inner conflict yet entirely unsympathetic. Meursault is “a citizen of France domiciled in North Africa, a man of the Mediterranean, an homme du midi yet one who hardly partakes of the traditional Mediterranean culture”; one might say that Houellebecq’s Francois is “a citizen of France, a child of the suburbs, domiciled in Paris, a man of France yet one who hardly partakes of traditional French culture.” (In the climactic encounter between Francois and the new president of the university, a recent convert to Islam, Houellebecq’s Francois even finds time to imbibe Meursault wine, saying, “I don’t think people talk enough about Meursault,” as he contemplates his own conversion.) Like Meursault, Francois has lost his mother—not merely his biological mother but his spiritual and cultural mother as well. The story is also about the death of la mère patrie, of France, symbolized by the Black Virgin of Rocamadour, in the heart of medieval France.
The reader encounters Christianity only well into the story, when Francois, in his forties, leaves Paris to encounter medieval Christendom for the first time. He journeys to Poitiers, where Charles Martel turned back the Muslim invaders, and then to Ligugé Abbey, where Huysmans had submitted to the beauty and mystery of Christianity. Francois, perhaps like Houellebecq, looks for Christianity to restore the civilizational vitality of France (and Europe), only to find that this spiritual life has been thoroughly depleted by war, atheism, and postmodernism. The confidence that had built Rocamadour and Mt. Saint Michel and Chartres has given way to ennui, exhaustion, and decline. Francois is an atheist who longs for mystery, for meaning—in a word, for God. But on his pilgrimage to Rocamadour he finds that the Christian God is already dead. In the end, Francois follows Huysmans down the path of conversion—not to Christianity, but to Islam.
Submission, like all satire, derives its inspiration from the tendencies of its epoch taken to their logical extreme. Islam is not, contrary to popular perception, Houellebecq’s target. (The title, an obvious reference to one meaning of the Arabic word Islam, captures the cowardice of the story’s French elites, though the protagonist’s sexual habits suggest prurient implications as well.) To the extent that the reader is given a view into European Islam, it is largely from the perspective of academics and their apparently expedient conversions. Francois’s conversion secures for him a teaching post at a now Muslim university in Paris, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia. Throughout the novel, the Gulf States lurk in the shadows, where they compete for influence over both political and academic institutions.
Adam Gopnik, in his New Yorker review of Submission, observed that satire is necessarily an exaggeration of the likely outcome of real-world phenomena; “[i]n the real world, a vector never keeps going in a straight line. . . . We never got to 1984, or to boiling Irish babies. Other forces intervened.” It is likely that other forces will intervene to preclude the wholesale transfer of France’s government and elite institutions to the Gulf States. Yet the Gulf State influence in Submission is not some dystopic future to be arrived at absent a course correction; it is very much part of the West’s present reality.
The small, extravagantly wealthy ruling class of the Gulf States funds extremism and terrorism, oversees public beheadings (and the occasional crucifixion, from which even minors are not exempt), upholds institutionalized misogyny, and countenances the brutal treatment of servant-slaves and the persecution of religious minorities and homosexuals. According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia restricts basic human rights as a matter of course, arresting, prosecuting, and imprisoning “human rights defenders and government critics,” including “prisoners of conscience.” Torture of detainees, unfair trials, and discrimination against women, minorities, and migrants are common practices, as is the liberal application of the death penalty.
Even ISIS, the scourge of the West in our day, has its own inextricable ties to the Gulf region. First, there are the essential links to Arabia’s Wahhabi Islam, a reformist ideology that has bred extremism in Sunni Islam. Then there is the financial support from across the Arab Gulf. “Everybody knows the money is going through Kuwait and that it’s coming from the Arab Gulf,” Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Daily Beast as ISIS overran Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. “Kuwait’s banking system and its money changers have long been a huge problem because they are a major conduit for money to extremist groups in Syria and now Iraq.” The money flowing into extremist groups and human rights violations have been documented copiously, with little change in U.S. policy.
These problems have not, of course, been neatly contained in the Persian Gulf. The West’s dependence on Middle East oil engendered the largest transfer of wealth in human history: Some experts estimate as much as $7 trillion from the U.S. alone to the Middle East in the last four decades. Much of this wealth has funded the spread of fundamentalist ideologies, terror, and violence around the world. Middle East scholar J.B. Kelly and others foresaw decades ago that this money was being used not merely to radicalize Muslims in the Middle East but to influence the public institutions of the West. Kelly described this latter tendency as “the creeping corruption of our political, economic, and social institutions by both the covert and overt use of oil money.”
Gulf Arab petro-nobility donate tens of millions to elite American universities and leading think tanks. The think tanks, of course, are well positioned to directly shape U.S. policy. “It is particularly egregious because with a law firm or lobbying firm, you expect them to be an advocate,” Joseph Sandler, an attorney and expert on foreign influence, told the New York Times’ Eric Lipton. “Think tanks have this patina of academic neutrality and objectivity, and that is being compromised.” For his investigative journalism into this foreign influence, Lipton won a Pulitzer Prize in 2015. Later that year, Saudi influence was flaunted in the face of human rights activists when Saudi Arabia was appointed to the UN Human Rights Council. Hillel Neuer of UN Watch said at the time: “Saudi Arabia has arguably the worst record in the world when it comes to religious freedom and women’s rights. This UN appointment is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief.”
The perception that the Gulf Arabs have undue influence over America’s foreign policy is a known concern at the highest levels of government. Jeffrey Goldberg, in his masterful Atlantic piece, “The Obama Doctrine,” observed that it is a “widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign-policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding” of their funders from the Arab Gulf. Goldberg said he even “’heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as ‘Arab-occupied territory.’”
Lurking very much in the corners of American power, as in Houellebecq’s satire, is the influence of the Gulf States. Like Submission’s Francois, America’s elites have thus far proved unequal to the temptations.
America’s old order, the Brahmin protectors of the nation’s establishment, has given way to a new, ideologically casual bourgeois elite—the American Francois. Like Francois, the principal fear of America’s public elite is to be cast of out Eden, exiled to irrelevance outside the Beltway, there to suffer the indignity of producing rather than consuming. Like Francois, America’s elite rarely venture outside their urban (or suburban) cocoons and are no more familiar with the America Tocqueville observed than Francois was with medieval France. And like Francois, America’s new elite inherited none of the noblesse oblige of the old regime, though it apparently has superior self-preservation instincts. Talk of “future generations” has faded almost completely from political discourse; even if the new ruling class does not echo the infamous utterance of its profligate forerunners at Versailles, “Apres moi, les deluge,” the sentiment informs its action. The American Francois, like the French Francois, is for sale. And the same petro-nobility—which presides over the stoning of adulterous women and the persecution of homosexuals, religious minorities, and nonviolent clerics in the Persian Gulf—also bankrolls a good deal of America’s public culture, a purchase that includes our elites.
Little of this seedy institutional reality has informed the recent populist-nativist revolt in American domestic politics. Perhaps the collective intuition of the American people has sensed that politicians, like professors, wonks, and even pundits are for sale. Whatever the case, one senses among America’s elites, much as with Francois, a compulsion—for access, for influence, for the illusion of power—that corrupts and ultimately overwhelms.
Of course, the corruption of elites is not novel in the history of great powers. The French monarchy at Versailles captured the essence of the deracinated elite, cut off from their social bonds, responsibilities, and cultural heritage. But Ancient Rome may be a better comparison for Washington. Winwood Reade, writing of dissolute Rome in The Martyrdom of Man, observed that its elites consumed the wealth of the provinces from atop a command economy, that the “carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.” America’s recent populist revolt suggests that the peasants in the provinces have at long last recognized the scent of the return cargo of their ruling class, even if relatively few are aware of the extent to which the Gulf States influence their nation’s institutions.
Houellebecq’s portrayal of French elites, particularly through the inner monologue of Francois, who conceals none of his own pusillanimity, is at once hilarious and demoralizing. In other words, Houellebecq’s work achieves its satirical purpose. Even when the reader arrives at the men of the French establishment submitting to the new order and its accoutrements (palatial homes, prestigious posts, multiple teenage wives), he must remind himself that this is satire and one is being asked to suspend his disbelief. Contemporary American politics requires another suspension of disbelief: One must believe that those guarding America’s sacred institutions are incapable of egregious betrayal. It seems America’s governed, with all the hideous wrath of the French peasant, are increasingly unwilling to suspend their disbelief.
Sir John Harrington, remembered principally for an invention that the Romans might have found more useful than carts, observed four centuries ago: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” Houellebecq’s version of submission, the abject groveling of a subject at court, is a subtler kind of treason, in which the elites of Europe betray their own heritage—France, Europe, medieval Christendom, Western civilization—in order to survive as elites. It’s possible, as Gopnik suggests, that we will never quite arrive at the world created by the satire. Or perhaps we are already there.
Andrew Doran writes about U.S. foreign policy and human rights in the Middle East. He lives in the Washington, DC area.