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Misunderstanding Muslims

The West doesn't seem to see what's behind the rage over the cartoon controversy.

| Tue Feb. 14, 2006 3:00 AM EST

This piece first appeared in the Boston Globe.

WHEN THE KORAN was said to have been denigrated by American guards at Guantanamo last year, Muslims reacted with rage, but most observers in the West misunderstood why.

It was easy for Christians and Jews -- the other ''people of the Book" -- to think that such an insult to the Koran was like an insult to the Bible. That would be sacrilege enough, but it was worse than that.

Drawing analogies between religions can mislead, but the Koran stands in Islamic belief more as Jesus does in Christian faith than as the Bible. As this Christian understands it, the Koran embodies the incarnational principle, with the chanting of the holy words that came from God to Mohammed as the way God's presence is experienced again.

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Non-Muslims tend to think that the Prophet is to Islam something like what Jesus is to Christianity (which is why non-Muslims have mistakenly called the religion ''Mohammedanism"), but it is the Koran that holds such a central place. Hence, Islamic visual celebration is calligraphy, not images. Therefore when the Koran is disrespected, the insult Muslims feel is nothing less than insult to God.

Insult, of course, is the issue that has been put so explosively before the world recently. The Danish cartoons were a flame applied to a primed fuse, and the extraordinary reactions to the images from across the whole House of Islam point beyond the immediate provocation to a far broader sense of insult that Muslims have been made to feel.

One need not excuse the indiscriminate violence of mobs in the streets, nor dismiss the good question of why such rage is not directed against the blasphemy of suicide-murders carried out in the name of Allah to take a lesson from what has happened. The Islamic world seems astoundingly united in sending a stern message to ''the West," and instead of focusing again on ''what went wrong" with Islam Europeans and Americans would do well to take that message in.

Thinking of deep history, for example, we might recall that the very structures of politics, culture, and thought that define western civilization were expressly erected in opposition to Islam more than 1,000 years ago.

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