My personal relationship with Islam has been distant. Of course I know Muslims I’m very fond of; but they are few, that’s for sure. I have not been marked by our relationship, their religion or ideology, because they must be the most secular. They have not marked me as horror has marked me.
The moment of the fall of the World Trade Center towers still lives, as something distant but clear, in my memory. Beyond the images, which I saw over and over again on CNN that night, I remember the terror on the faces of my elderly relatives, who seemed to understand or thought they understood what was happening. Terror, at the end.
I was a little older when terrorists killed some innocent people in London, back in 2005. It turned out to be the same terrorists who four years earlier had murdered almost three thousand in New York, that day when terror was written on the faces of my relatives. And ten years later, terror unsettled me.
I think it was because I was already a journalist then, I understood very well the value of freedom of expression and the sacred right to blasphemy, that the attack on Charlie Hebdo terrified me so much. For drawing, for mocking, they took the lives of cartoonists, who until then were free. They killed them as one kills a wild animal for which no one cries. As if they were pigs. Indiscriminately, a group of cartoonists armed with pencil and paper.
A few months later they did the same to happy people, enjoying the beauty of Paris, its restaurants, its bars and its music. They massacred them, at about ten o’clock at night, for no reason other than fanaticism and a visceral hatred of happiness. Women and men. In total, on November 13, 2015, 131 civilians. That day I spoke to a friend who lived in Paris and had been very close to the carnage. She was crying. She was afraid. She had never felt so insecure, so vulnerable.
Terror prevailed. In France and in the world. The enemy was everywhere. From London to Boston to Istanbul to Brussels. Everywhere. Something unites them, whether they belong to one terrorist group or another. From one branch of ideology or another. The same slogan, the same war cry: Allah is great, or Allahu Akbar! They are the sons of Allah, who have claimed more lives than the lethal Ebola epidemic.
Then, when Paris was subdued, I started reading. I started with Bernard Lewis, to get a good understanding of Islam, and moved on to Graeme Wood, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Reza Aslan, Salman Rushdie and Oriana Fallaci. The point was to try to decode, beyond the Koran, what for everyone is very complex. The debate had intensified in those days. That if what was happening in the streets of Europe, that indiscriminate bloodshed, had something to do with that Abrahamic religion that supposedly professes only love and compassion. The blackmail, as always, was that of racism, as if Muslims were another race.
I was reading because I was afraid of blackmail; but the answer is almost self-evident. To dissociate terrorism from Islam is like dissociating Chavism from socialism —or Coca-Cola from diabetes—. Not every Muslim is a terrorist; but every terrorist, who shouts “allahu akbar” is certainly a Muslim. And is one of the hard ones, of the orthodox, of the fanatics. For them, you either kill or are killed for religion, the rest are not true Muslims. They, they think, are the true sons of Allah who will be rewarded with the paradise of which the Koran speaks: that of pleasure and the huris that satisfy the heroes.
Houellebecq was a turning point. This will be very unprofessional, but literature, rather than heavy and tedious historical documentation, has helped me to understand Islam and terror. Or so I thought. Submission is a sobering book, in that sense. Frightening, moreover, because it masterfully illustrates the reality: we are at war (a holy one, they say, jihad). It’s disturbing, because it shows us the future: we are going to lose it.
We are going to lose it to the extent that blackmail works and breaks our legs. It subdues us, brings us to our knees. For fear of being honest, of offending or hurting emotions, let us all end up marching, disciplined, with our right hand at our temples, towards the ravine. Because there is nothing more crudely sensible than admitting our dread of terror. I am. I am afraid of them. I am afraid of an ideology that is advancing rapidly, that a few days ago took Afghanistan and is going to return women to the Middle Ages. To the chador, the minarets or the damn burqa.
The Guardian asked Houellebecq, after the publication of Submission and the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, if he was an Islamophobe. Blackmail, again. But the writer, brilliant as always, did not give in. “Am I Islamophobic? Yes, probably. One can be afraid,” he said. Then he extended the answer: “I am probably Islamophobic, but the word phobia means fear rather than hate. I’m afraid of everything going wrong in the West, and it’s already going wrong.”
Houellebecq speaks of terrorism, of the advance of the bad guys. He is aware that they are a minority within Islam, “but a few people may have a very strong effect. It is often the most determined minorities that make history.”