To say that the problems of the Middle East are confusing is an understatement. Particularly troubling is a wave of anti-American sentiment across the world that is related to our actions in the Persian Gulf. It is troubling because we see ourselves as liberating an oppressed nation and fighting on behalf of those who are too weak to carry on the fight for themselves. We see ourselves as defending against bullies who would blackmail the rest of the world with the economic power of oil.

Despite our best judgment that we are doing what is right by helping those who need our help, there have been violent anti-American protests in Jordan, Syria, Pakistan, Malaysia, and to some degree in Iran. Some of these protests even seem to be orchestrated by governments. Perhaps if they have any common denominator it is that they demonstrate that the conflict in Iraq is only a focal point of a larger conflict between Islamic Arabs and a Western world that doesn't understand the culture it is fighting.Although one gets the idea sometimes that the issues are so complex that nobody, not even heads of state, can understand them, it may help those of us who are confused if we had learned something about the Islamic culture and particularly its claim on the Middle East. It may even help if this were taught in our schools.

A good place to start is the Holy Qur'an (sometimes spelled Koran in English), and a good place to start in this book of Islamic scripture is with a story with which Christians are very familiar, the story of Abraham's near sacrifice of his son. In Christian theology, this is a forecast of the sacrifice of a divine son. The future sacrifice that Abraham forecasts is one that will save the world.

The story in the Holy Qur'an illustrates a fundamental belief of Islam. It is in chapter 98:99-113. The plural pronoun we means God.

"He said: 'I will go

To my Lord! He

Will surely guide me!

O my Lord! grant me

A righteous (son)!'

So We gave him

The good news

Of a boy ready

To suffer and forbear.

Then, when (the son)

Reached (the age of)

(Serious) work with him,

He said: `O my son!

Now see what is

Thy view!' (The son) said:

`O my father! Do

As thou art commanded:

Thou will find me,

If God so wills one

Practising Patience and Constancy!'

So when they had both

Submitted their wills (to God),

And he had laid him

Prostrate on his forehead

(For Sacrifice),

We called out to him,

`O Abraham!'

`Thou hast already fulfilled

The vision!' thus indeed

Do We reward

Those who do right.

For this was obviously

A trial - "

A careful reading of this passage doesn't reveal much difference with the Bible story except the obvious compliance by the son in the Holy Qur'an. The real difference is in the footnote. The son in this story in the Holy Qur'an is Ishmael. In the Bible the son is Isaac.

This from note 4101 in the Holy Qur'an may help us to understand. "The Jewish tradition, in order to glorify the younger branch of the family, descended from Isaac, ancestor of the Jews, as against the elder branch, descended from Ismail (Koran spelling), ancestor of the Arabs, refers this sacrifice to Isaac. Now Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old while Ismail was born to Abraham when Abraham was 86 years old. Ismail was therefore 14 years older than Isaac. During his first 14 years Ismail was the only son of Abraham; at no time was Isaac the only son of Abraham. Yet, in speaking of the sacrifice, the Old Testament says (Gen. 22:2) `And He said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering. . .' "

The point is not to argue scripture or theology. The point is that the Islamic world believes, and the story of this sacrifice illustrates, that the promises given to Abraham of lands and inheritance belong to them through the rightful first son Ishmael. The Palestinians are desperate; they honestly feel that not only has an inheritance been stolen, but they have absolutely no inheritance or homeland at all.

These feelings undoubtedly unite the Islamic world, and it unites them against the most powerful ally of Israel, the United States.

This brief look into Islam doesn't really explain the current conflict, but it may help us understand the very real and powerful anti-American feelings in the Islamic countries of the world. It may also help explain the apparent unity of these Islamic countries against the U.S. and Israel.

- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Roger Baker, English department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627.