- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2002

A Paris court will rule today whether best-selling French author Michel Houellebecq should bepunished for calling Islam "the dumbest religion."
Mr. Houellebecq, 44, faces up to 18 months in prison and a $70,000 fine if found guilty of both charges against him: racial insult and inciting racial hatred.
Officials from the main mosques in Paris and Lyon filed a lawsuit after the novelist's interview with French literary magazine Lire, also a defendant in the case.
"The dumbest religion, after all, is Islam," Mr. Houellebecq said in the interview. "When you read the Koran, you're shattered. The Bible at least is beautifully written because the Jews have a heck of a literary talent."
Mr. Houellebecq also told the interviewer that he felt Islam was "a dangerous religion right from the start."
The comments touched a nerve in France's Muslim community of 5 million, which says it is a victim of a Western backlash since the September 11 attacks in the United States last year.
Other writers have come to Mr. Houellebecq's defense, saying that punishing the author for his opinion is tantamount to censure.
His most high-profile defender was British author Salman Rushdie, who was targeted for death by an Iranian religious ruling for reputed blasphemy in his 1988 satirical novel, "The Satanic Verses."
In an article this month in the French newspaper Liberation and in The Washington Post, Mr. Rushdie said a guilty verdict for Mr. Houellebecq would be a blow to free speech.
He said "thin-skinned guardians of Islamic sanctities" were too quick to target writers and called the charges against the French author "ridiculously slight."
"If an individual in a free society no longer has the right to say openly that he prefers one book to another, then that society no longer has the right to call itself free," Mr. Rushdie wrote.
At a hearing on Sept. 17 during which even the state prosecutor recommended that the judge hand down an acquittal a typically dour Mr. Houellebecq ridiculed the charges against him.
"The facts of the accusation are being presented with grand airs. You'd think the whole world had been waiting to hear what I had to say. But there was no shock wave," he said.
He added that his comments about Islam had been spoken with "disdain, not hate."
Mr. Houellebecq's latest novel, "Platform," has been praised by critics worldwide. It seemingly predicted last week's bomb attack, blamed on Islamic terrorists, on an Indonesian nightclub that killed at least 187 persons.
In the book, the main character also called Michel loses his girlfriend when an explosive rips apart an Asian nightclub called the Crazy Lips, resulting in "the deadliest attack ever in Asia."
Mr. Houellebecq is not the only writer who has landed in a French court for making comments about Islam.
Another case is ongoing against Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who is accused by French human rights groups of inciting racial hatred by saying in her book "The Rage and the Pride" that Muslims "multiply like rats."

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