Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sep. 18, 2002
A provocative French writer who called Michel Houellebecq, being sued by four Muslim groups and a French human rights group after his comments appeared in a magazine interview, also claimed in the packed Paris court he had the right to criticise religions.
The case has become a cause celebre reminiscent of the Salman Rushdie affair, pitting free speech against religious sensitivities at a time when public focus on Islam has grown due to the September 11 attacks in the United States.
Houellebecq has rejected the label “anti-Muslim racist”, saying the term did not make sense.
He accused the editor of the literary monthly Lire of twisting his words in the interview last year, which was condensed from a six-hour conversation.
Lire is also on trial over the remarks, which the groups bringing the case say insult the Muslim community as a whole.
“He got it into his head that I was obsessed with Islam,” Houellebecq, 45, said. “The way it (the interview) came out was crooked.”
Houellebecq, who lives outside Cork in Ireland, told the court he had read three translations of the Koran and several books about it.
“In literary terms, the Bible has several authors, some good and some as bad as crap,” he said. “The Koran has only one author and its overall style is mediocre.”
He rejected statements by the Muslim groups that theirs was a religion of peace, saying the founding scriptures of all three great monotheistic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – were all “texts of hate”.
But he added that criticising a religion did not amount to slandering its adherents: “I do not see how criticising a religion in an acerbic manner involves them as people.”
State prosecutor Beatrice Angelelli, in court only to advise the judges hearing the case, affirmed Houellebecq’s assertion that under French law people could criticise religion as long as they did not attack followers of a faith.
“We are not here … to make judgments on moral responsibilities. We are here to judge a criminal responsibility and, on strictly legal criteria, I ask you to drop the charges,” Ms Angelelli said.
A panel of three judges will give its verdict on October 22.
The Muslim groups – the Mecca-based World Islamic League, the Paris Mosque, the Lyon Mosque and the National Federation of Muslims in France – accuse the writer of insulting Islam in the Lire interview during the launch of his novel Plateforme.
France’s Human Rights League joined the four Muslim groups to bring the case, saying Houellebecq’s comments amounted to “Islamophobia”.
Dalil Boubakeur, of the Paris Mosque, told the court: “Freedom of expression stops where it can do harm … I believe my community is humiliated, my religion is insulted, I ask for justice.”
Lawyer Jean-Marc Varaut, representing the Paris Mosque, said his ideas risked encouraging those who felt humiliated by his writing to follow Islamic fundamentalism instead of Islam.
Houellebecq, the enfant terrible of contemporary French literature, is no stranger to controversy, just as British author Rushdie caused a furore with his novel The Satanic Verses.
Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 death sentence on Rushdie for alleged blasphemy against Islam.
Houellebecq offended the politically correct left with his scathing criticism of the hippy generation in his 1998 novel Les Particules Elementaires (Atomised in English).
Houellebecq’s publisher, Flammarion, has distanced itself from the author, whose comments some say may have cost him France’s prestigious Goncourt prize – for which he had been a contender.
Translated into 25 languages, Atomised won him France’s November prize in 1998 and the Impac award, one of the world’s biggest fiction prizes.
Losing his case may mean up to a year in jail and a $51,000 fine.