Friends of mine suggested I should write a column about the war in the Gulf. After wadding up four false starts, I have decided not to add to the verbiage that already exists. Instead, I have been reflecting on the broader issue of conflict between the two largest world religions, Christianity and Islam.

For more than a decade, Americans have watched on television as mobs of screaming Muslims, calling for “death to the Great Satan,” burn our Presidents in effigy. The geography of protest changes—first Iran and Libya, then Iraq, now on to such places as Jordan and Algeria—but the rabidity does not. Saddam Hussein, never known for his piety before the war, manipulatively played upon these sentiments to stir up other Muslims.

Most Americans do not know what to make of these scenes. We fancy ourselves as friendly folks, quick to smile and lend a helping hand. Our leaders Carter, Reagan, and Bush seem to us more like congenial uncles than tyrants. The label “Great Satan” especially rankles, for we think of the United States as a Christian nation, far more devout than, say, Western Europe. At least we still go to church. How can anyone imagine us as pagan?

Martyrs And Materialists

Most Islamic criticisms of the West seem to revolve around the old word materialism. When that word describes the pursuit of wealth and consumer comforts, few Arab nations disapprove: thanks to oil revenues, the Persian Gulf is the wealthiest region in the world. But materialism also refers to a philosophical approach, a belief that human life consists mainly (or solely) in what takes place here and now, in the world of matter.

The disciples of Islam tend to view us as being obsessively concerned with this life, not the eternity to come. One reason Saddam ...

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