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.
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.
What we call ''the West" was born in the clash of civilizations that climaxed in the Crusades, with Muslims assigned the role of the external ''negative other" against which Christendom defined itself positively (The internal ''negative other" were the Jews). Among Europeans, and then Americans, that intellectual polarity was sublimated over the centuries, but its insult remained current among Muslims, and was powerfully resuscitated by the assault of colonialism.
The economics of oil, including the creation of an oppressive local class of Western-sponsored oligarchs, locked the grievous insult in place. As if to be sure it was more sharply felt than ever, Europe imported ''guest workers" from the Islamic world, openly consigning them to an underclass that is as religiously defined as it is permanent.
And then the United States launched its wars. One of the major disconnects in the present conflict is the way in which European and American analysis obsesses with the apparently anarchic outbursts of violence in the ''Arab street" without taking in how brutally violent the post-9/11 ''coalition" assault has been, not only physically but psychologically.
Mobs throw stones through the windows of European consulate offices, and the legion of CNN watchers recoils with horror. Meanwhile, unmanned drones fly across stretches of desert to drop loads of fire on the heads of subsistence farmers in their villages; children die, but CNN is not there.
Billions of dollars are being poured each month into the project of imposing an American solution on an Arab problem, and increasingly the solution looks, from the other side, like annihilation. Muslims, that is, understand the new reality far better than non-Muslims do -- the state of open cultural warfare that ''the West" imagines is a narrowly targeted war against ''terrorism." Muslims, as Muslims, experience themselves as on the receiving end of a savage -- but, alas, not unprecedented -- assault.
Are they wrong? In the argument over ''Enlightenment" values, sparked by the cartoons, some champions of free expression have fallen into the deadly old mistake that led, in the 20th century, to a grotesque betrayal of those very values -- the over-under ranking of human beings, with the lives of some being counted as cheap.
Why are we killing them? As with multiple problems today, this one comes back to the misbegotten American war. It threatens to ignite the century, and must be stopped.
© 2006 The Boston Globe