April 6, 2015

The French are buying a lot of books about Islam these days



A spokesman from La Procure bookshop says that the French want to form their own opinions about Islam. (Image via Flickr)

It shouldn’t, but it does, come with a depressing regularity; a society suffers a terrorist attack, and with that terror comes a new enemy, to know, to form opinions on, and pursue. The shootings at Charlie Hebdo and the Hypercasher supermarket in January that left 17 people dead were reminders to many that the ideology of IS and AQAP is not contained by state borders, as well as providing for many their call to action to gin up an Us vs. Them debate.

While the attacks catalyzed a huge swell of international support and an exhausting but necessary reintroduction into the debate over free speech’s endless nuance, the immediate aftermath of terrorism doesn’t often provide the affected citizenry a chance for nuanced, informed decision making. However, AFP reports that January’s tragedies may be spurring just that.

Books on Islam are selling out in France after deadly extremist attacks in the capital raised uncomfortable questions about Europe’s fastest-growing religion.

A special magazine supplement focused on the Koran has flown off the shelves, and shops are selling more books on Islam than ever after the Paris attacks in January that left 17 dead.

“The French are asking more and more questions, and they feel less satisfied than ever by the answers they’re getting from the media,” said Fabrice Gerschel, director of Philosophie magazine, which published the supplement.

The article goes on to quote multiple publishers and retailers, all of whom see this sales uptick as a hopeful sign of French non-Muslims attempting to educate themselves past popular culture and media’s interpretation of the religion, of which a significant minority population in France identifies as being a member (note: it’s unclear what percentage this entails, as the French government doesn’t collect census data on religion.)

Mansour Mansour, who runs the Al Bouraq publishing house specialising on Islam and the Middle East, said his sales have shot up by 30 percent.

“The same happened after the September 11 attacks in 2001,” he told AFP. Now the spike is likely to last longer “because Islam will continue to pose a geo-political problem,” Mansour sighed.

Part of the interest in France appears to stem from the fact that many of the extremists committing horrific abuses in Islam’s name in Syria and Iraq are of Western origin.

Enraged by the jihadists’ interpretation of the Koran, Mansour said his company has withdrawn several books that offered “too literal” an interpretation of Islam from his catalogue. He warned about people diving into reading the Koran “unaccompanied” and jumping to conclusions on its highly poetic text. Instead he recommends that the uninitiated start by reading a biography of the Prophet Muhammed.

The U.S. book market immediately after 9/11 was indeed dominated by religious texts; according to September 11 in Popular Culture: A GuideBibles and Korans did a very brisk trade in the tens of thousands, as did the latest installment in America’s new favorite paean to existential threats, the Left Behind series. Books on the Middle East, Islam, and the Taliban also found a new audience, and while Publisher’s Weekly acknowledged that the attack’s aftermath left many skeptical that book retail would do anything but flounder, the sales of religious books, and escapist nonfiction fiction alike proved otherwise.

French bookstores are championed and subsidized by the federal government in ways hugely unfamiliar to the US, so a comparison between the two of the cultural response to terrorism as expressed through book sales; still, both countries share a strong, often jingoistic focus on national character, the actual substance of which is constantly mired in debate. If the interviewees in the AFP article do represent a growing trend, then France can hope for a more informed, if not less contentious debate over Islam both within and without the religion’s members.

And while sales trends aren’t the only metric for a shift in national character, another move in French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ war on radical Islam will take place at the country’s universities; in March, he announced that the government would be funding twice as many current courses on Islam, both as a way of “stop[ping] the influence of foreign funding of training of French imams” and defeating the ignorance that fuels both the far right and radical Islam.

In the meantime, the French government is also stepping up its efforts to confiscate passports, issue travel bans, and block websites that “glorify terrorism”, and it’s expected that new laws allowing widespread metadata collection and otherwise non-judicially-overseen mass surveillance. Keep an eye out at French bookstores to see if books about human rights abuses and government overreach start gaining traction in the months ahead.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.