On the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. ambassador was murdered in Libya in a terrorist attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi. This attack coincided with a violent protest by Islamist extremists in Cairo, near the U.S. Embassy in the Egyptian capital.
It's possible that the timing of these religion-based attacks on American targets was coincidental. It's also possible, as some experts have argued, that a spontaneous reaction took place in the streets of Libya and Egypt, in response to the pitiful and insulting video, in their view, about the Prophet Muhammad and Islam. What is interesting, of course, is why a movie that was released online a few months ago caused the deadly attacks specifically on Sept. 11 of all days.
However, what is truly important is that regardless of the elements responsible for the terrorist attack, whoever they are, for millions of Muslims around the world criticism against the Arab world and Islam, critical analysis of Islam, or even a caricature of the prophet Muhammad, are justification for violence and even killing in the name of religion.
There is nothing new in all of this. A few years ago violent protests erupted across the Arab and Muslim world after caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were published in a Danish newspaper. Then, too, Scandinavian embassies were torched in several Arab capitals, while in Afghanistan the protests were aimed at the American soldiers stationed there. Everyone also recalls the author Salman Rushdie, who was issued a death sentence (in absentia) by Iran for his book "The Satanic Verses."
At that time, Moammar Gadhafi and Hosni Mubarak ruled Libya and Egypt respectively. Both of them, similar to their dictatorial counterparts across the Arab world, did not allow the U.S. embassies in their countries to come under attack. Rather, they allowed the angry masses to let off steam by protesting elsewhere. Otherwise, they feared, the crowd's wrath would be aimed at them. They simultaneously used these protests as justification for their oppressive regimes which, in their views, were the final obstacle blocking the path of radical Islam.
Gadhafi and Mubarak were deposed a while ago from Libya and Egypt, but not without some help from Washington. An Islamist regime took Mubarak's place in Egypt, while in Libya the radical Islamic factions enjoy wide-ranging support throughout the country after finally being allowed to operate.
Washington was blessed with these changes and sought to see them as a step forward on the way to the Arab world becoming more democratic. The U.S. also sought to build on the unwavering support the West had given these Arab revolutionaries. Yesterday, however, American expectations came crashing down to meet the realities of the Middle East.
This is a moment of truth for the Libyan regime. It is especially so for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood regime, which doesn't need legitimacy from religious elements, unlike Mubarak's regime, and could have come out and issued harsh condemnation of the violence.
The question, of course, is whether Morsi's Egypt will be more open and tolerant a few years down the road, or whether it will be a country where the extremists control the agenda. In such a scenario, the next anti-American or anti-West outburst is only a matter of time.