The Arab spring of democratic awakening turned a new page in relationships between the Muslim world and the West. But it did not lessen the tension between the Western democratic tradition of free speech and cultural sensitivities. The page is now stained with the blood of both sides amid anti-Western protests against a blasphemous US-made video that have swept more than 20 countries, from the Middle East to North Africa and Asia, including Malaysia and Indonesia.
The US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans were killed during an armed assault by protesters on the US consulate in Benghazi. Protesters have also been killed in clashes with police and hundreds injured.
The video mocking the Prophet Mohammed that lit the fuse of anti-Western feeling is an amateur production translated into Arabic and posted on the internet. Its origins and links to anti-Islamic elements are murky. But the response was predictable, given the violent reaction six years ago to the publication in Europe of newspaper cartoons of the Prophet considered blasphemous.
Free speech is a central pillar of democracy. But there are limits, such as the sensibilities of the audience, that must be taken into account, as newspapers around the world like this one do every day. In this case, these limits have been deliberately violated. Those involved in the film must have known it would give grave offence. They cannot absolve themselves of blame for the senseless loss of life. That said, neither can Islamic leaders, who have the authority and responsibility to rein in extremists and encourage respect for the rule of law. The Libyan government must spare no effort to bring the killers to justice.
The US government has rightly denounced the video. But the outrage over it, amid conflict revolving around the US, Israel and Iran, illustrates the challenges the West faces in building better relations with elected Islamic governments. It has done nothing to make the world a safer place.