It begins with the mandatory teaching of the Koran in schools; then French women start wearing veils and abandoning skirts; then men start having up to four wives, and as many concubines as they can afford; and then the genial Ben Abbes embarks on a great and visionary programme to change the whole contour and complexion of the EU, to admit Turkey and the Maghreb countries. Before you can say Allahu akbar the French are leading a programme to create a kind of “Eurabia”, and France’s Jewish population flees for Israel.
As for the rest of the French population, they follow the establishment in a kind of submission, as the title suggests; and “submission”, of course, is the literal meaning of Islam. The hero is a seedy-looking, chain-smoking intellectual who becomes a Muslim, and is rewarded with a luscious, Gulf-funded university post and a nubile young wife. Otherwise – and this is the really spooky bit – the country just carries on. The point of the book is to send a shiver up the spine, to play upon Islamophobia, and to make you wonder what it really would be like if Europe were under Muslim rule.
I was brooding on this vanishingly unlikely contingency when the plane touched down and it hit me. We were there: we had just landed in the last patch of western Europe to resemble Houellebecq’s dystopia in the sense that it was the last place to be under the control of the Muslims. We have spent a couple of nights in Granada in southern Spain, and on Saturday there was a procession through town to celebrate the expulsion of Boabdil, otherwise known as Muhammad XII, the last sultan of Granada.
You may remember this wretch. On January 2 1492 he was forced to hand over the keys to the incomparably beautiful rose-pink Alhambra palace, and as he looked back he emitted a groan of anguish known as “El suspiro del Moro” – the Moor’s last sigh. At which point his mother whipped him, saying: “You weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man!” When you look at what Boabdil had surrendered, you can see her point.
The Muslims ruled this part of Spain for 800 years, and their legacy was colossal. Now I don’t go along with this notion that it was all a kind of multi-culti sweetness and light, with Christians, Muslims and Jews living side by side in perfect harmoneee, like Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Both Christians and Muslims wanted to be on top; both indulged in occasional pogroms and forced conversions; and don’t forget that in 1492 it was the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who kicked out the last Moor from the citadel of Granada and expelled every Jew from Spain.
No, there is no easy way you can retrofit medieval Spain to become some prototype of modern urban pluralism and tolerance. But what you cannot deny is the scale of the Muslim achievement. It was the intellectual flowering of the Cordoba caliphate that helped to protect and transmit ancient Greek texts and eventually to propel the European Renaissance. The Islamic architecture of Granada is simply astonishing.
When I went for a run yesterday I saw files of Japanese and Koreans waiting to get in, and you can see why. With its honeycomb ceilings, reflective pools and jasmine-scented gardens, the Alhambra, many would argue, is the most beautiful building in the world. In this very Catholic country it is notable that it is this Muslim structure – not the Prado, not the Gaudí cathedral, not the Bilbao Guggenheim – that is Spain’s biggest tourist attraction. And in Spain’s euro-ravaged economy, that cash makes a big difference.
Our age is likely to be bedevilled by anxiety about Islam – or at least about Islamism. Consider the psychological impact of Sunday night’s appalling video message from the sick fanatics in Raqqa. We will be forced constantly and ruthlessly to insist on the distinction between Islamic extremism and a religion that is followed around the world by more than a billion people who are no less peaceful, no less loving, no less kind or good than ourselves.
"It is worth celebrating an epoch in which a specifically Islamic culture made a great and imperishable contribution to civilisation"
In the tensions now between Iran and Saudi Arabia, between Shia and Sunni, we can see the outline of what could become a chronic and disastrous struggle for mastery within Islam itself. Amid all this gloom and all this apprehension – upon which people like Houellebecq are able to harp so skilfully – it is worth celebrating an epoch in which a specifically Islamic culture made a great and imperishable contribution to European civilisation.