The only good things to come of 9/11, some say, are a greater consciousness of and a keener sensitivity to Islamic history, religion and culture. If that is so, the education has been slow and painful in the past six years, made all the more difficult by the gruesome reality of the Iraq war.

The education has been impeded by terrible conceptual mistakes, the first and most fundamental of which occurred five days after the catastrophe when President Bush proclaimed an American crusade. This deflected attention from mass murder and defined the coming struggle — much to the joy of al-Qaeda, no doubt — in terms of Western crusade and Eastern jihad. Donald Rumsfeld tried to scare us with the fantasy of a worldwide Islamic “caliphate.” The Danish cartoons insulted Muhammad in the name of free expression, and the pope weighed in with his dense imputation that Islam was an “evil and inhuman” religion.

These gaffes and deliberate provocations come from an ignorance of Islamic history and overlook the intensity with which historical symbols are felt in the Arabic world. If we can begin to dream of a postwar period in the near future when reconciliation with the Arab world — as well as healing at home — is the imperative, then a healthier respect for the traditions of those we have attacked and insulted might be a good start.

Zachary Karabell’s “Peace Be Upon You” is a welcome and important contribution to this historical phase that lies ahead. The book presents an overview of the relations among Muslims, Christians and Jews since the time of Muhammad. As such, it should be required reading for congressmen who must vote on billions for a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis or presidential candidates who vie for the chance to preside over a postwar America.


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