"First as tragedy, then as farce" is the way history repeats itself as Karl Marx's words continue to teach us. But after an amateur anti-Islamic video went viral in North Africa leaving four state department officials killed in Libya and the US Embassy in Cairo breached, there is hardly anything farcical about this latest round of anti-Muslim provocation and senseless retaliatory violence.
We have been here before. The late Ayatollah Khomeini's notorious edict against Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses in 1989, The Danish Cartoon controversy in 2005, and Pastor Terry Jones's Qur'an burning stunt in 2010. Anyone who has a inkling of familiarity with the Muslim world knows that sacrilege and blasphemy are not understood as acts of free speech, political expression, or artistic creativity. No, they are bright red lines that promise public panic and guarantee violence. Couple that reality with two centuries of colonial and neo-imperial European domination of the greater Middle East and you have the perfect storm for an international communications disaster. So, as history repeats itself, the only thing ludicrous is the incessant stubbornness of both the West's commitment to "free speech" and the Muslim world's rush to violence, the irony of which is lost upon them both.
But first on the film: Muhammad: Prophet of the Muslims produced by Isreali citizen and California resident Sam Bacile and promoted by the extremists Christians Terry Jones and Morris Sadek is a purely venomous and malicious mockery of the life of Muhammad. Yes, Muhammad, the founder of Islam, the man whom 1.5 billion Muslims are taught to love more than their own selves and strive to emulate in their constant being. Unlike the Danish Cartoons or Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, Bacile and his financiers intended only to provoke outrage and violence and not to make an artistic or political statement. Even Geert Van Wilder's nonsensical propaganda, Fitna, or Hirsi Ali's provocation, Submission, can try to make the case that there is some kind of message behind their productions. But one look at Sam Bacile's film will demonstrate that its vitriolic message elevates it to the status of a hate crime.
The movie depicts Muhammad as sexually licentious, insane, and fanatically violent. It draws upon (in the most uncreative ways) a long line of anti-Muslim stereotypes that date to the crusades. In short these stereotypes are to Islamophobia what blood libel is anti-Semitism.
What is farcical is not only that Muslims who murder in the name of Islam reinforce the very stereotypes that caused their outrage but also that western democratic societies which continue to protect what amounts to hate speech reinforce their own stereotypes in the Muslim world as Godless moral relativists. Even more ironic however is that the chorus of condemnation on all sides will be loudly sounded, yet there will be no mechanism of force or law to stop this deadly child's play of provocation and retaliation.
Consider this: how is it possible that not the FBI nor Secretary of Defense Robert Gates could stop Pastor Terry Jones from putting the Quran on Trial and burning it when it was well known that the act would cause violence around the world and harm the security of the US personnel abroad? Likewise, how is possible that despite the most elaborate condemnations from Muslim religious authorities around the world that they could not stop a mob of thugs from storming the consulate in Benghazi and murdering the ambassador that helped them overthrow Qaddafi?
Another layer of irony, still, will be our own melancholy reactions. As more protests unfold in the coming days and more violence abounds, the average global citizen will simply shake their heads, dumbfounded, and make hollow appeals for calm and reason. What we have yet to understand is that whether it takes the shape of Muhammad or the concept of Free Speech, the sacred remains untouchable. Until we find a system of law that limits the abuse of our sacred symbols, we can count on Marx's promise that our coming days will be filled with nothing but farce.