- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

PARIS Best-selling French writer Michel Houellebecq appeared in court this week facing the threat of a year in jail and a $51,000 fine because he said in an interview last year that Islam was a "stupid" religion.

During a raucous hearing, marked by a protest inside the courtroom by free-speech activists and the shouts of demonstrators outside, Mr. Houellebecq refused to apologize to the Muslim groups who accused him of inciting religious hatred.

"I have never shown the slightest contempt for Muslims, but I have always held Islam in contempt," Mr. Houellebecq told the court Tuesday.

The writer was being sued by four Muslim groups and a French human rights group over an interview with the Parisian literary magazine Lire, in which Mr. Houellebecq was described as hating Arabs and Muslims and failing to distinguish between the two. He also said in the interview that he rejected all monotheistic religions and that "the stupidest religion of all is Islam."

While the hearing is a civil trial, Mr. Houellebecq could be sentenced to jail if the panel of three judges hearing the case decides he is guilty of inciting racial hatred, which carries criminal penalties.

That was considered unlikely though. State prosecutor Beatrice Angelelli, in court to advise the judges, pointed out on Tuesday that it is legal in France to criticize a religion as long as one does not attack the 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," the prosecutor said.

The judges will give their verdict on Oct. 22.

In the interview, Mr. Houellebecq said, "When one reads the Koran, one is devastated, devastated. At least the Bible is very beautiful, because the Jews have a sacred literary talent, which can excuse a lot of things.

"As a result, I have a residual sympathy for Catholicism, because of its polytheistic aspect. And then there are all those churches, windows, paintings and sculptures."

On Tuesday, he was asked whether or not he still thought Muslims were stupid. "I didn't say that," he said. "I said they practice a stupid religion." Asked if he was racist against Islam, he answered: "You can't be racist against Islam."

Talking about religious works, he said: "In reality, the monotheist texts preach neither peace, nor love, nor tolerance. They are texts of hate." In the interview to the magazine, he said the best tool against religion was irony, and that he hoped Islam would suffer the same fate as Catholicism "remain vaguely official for a while and then decline gently."

Immediately after the interview was published last September, Mr. Houellebecq issued a statement saying it was a crude abbreviation and distortion of his meaning and that he was not a racist. The interview, he said, had lasted six hours and only a tiny portion of it had been printed.

Nevertheless, the published comments drew strong protests from France's Muslim community. "Words have a price. One can kill with a word. Freedom of expression stops at the point at which it does damage and the Muslim community feels insulted," said Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Paris mosque.

Though lionized as a writer, Mr. Houellebecq, 44, is not a popular figure on the French literary scene. He shot to international fame with the 1998 shock novel "Atomized."

While others may have had the entire French literary establishment cheering them on to defend free speech, Mr. Houellebecq has won the backing only of die-hard free-speech activists and a handful of fellow writers.

Some critics say Mr. Houellebecq's intention in giving the provocative interview may have been to boost sales for his book "Plateforme."

The book tells of a disillusioned young bachelor, Michel, who finds sexual and personal fulfillment in the fleshpots of Bangkok. He meets a woman with whom he sets up a hedonistic sex resort for tourists, which is a roaring success until attacked by Islamic activists.

The book was praised widely for laying bare the hollowness and absurdities of global society.

The case against Mr. Houellebecq comes at a time when the French publishing industry is feeling the heat from all manner of groups. Earlier this month, anti-pedophile groups succeeded in having a novel about a rapist removed from bookstores.

In an essay in the newspaper Le Monde last week, the heads of three of France's biggest publishers wrote: "Literature's calling is not to appease but rather to worry and to offend. It is there to provoke. Otherwise, what is the point? Nothing human, or inhuman for that matter, is off limits to literature."

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