The Crusades were an attack on Islam not unlike the attacks of the 9/11 fanatics. The first official act of the first crusaders was to kill the Jews in Mainz. Crusaders then went on to sack the Christian city of Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land.

Their belief that the Saracens did not belong in Palestine held as much water as our belief that northern Europeans had a God-given right to wrest North and South America from their indigenous peoples. Nor did their religiosity do much to justify their claims.

The north Europeans in the New World were exploiters, the Crusaders were exploiters, anf the Saracens who wrested much of the Mediterranean basic from other cultures were exploiters. None of them belonged.

Religion distorts history and prompts us to look through the wrong end of the telescope. The day`s headlines aid and abet this distortion, because they fail to invite us to step from the immediacy of events, the night of events, so to speak. And this is why ignorant armies clash in the night.

This is not, moreover, the first time militant Israel has clashed with Arabs. We didn`t call them Arabs then, but it`s probable that the Philistine and Canaanites of biblical renown were Arab peoples, forebears of today`s Arabs. And it`s as easy to see King David as a ferocious and fanatical land-grabber as it is to see him as a hero. It depends on where you`re standing when you look.

Religion justifies nothing. But throughout history it`s ill-used by fanatics making claims to what doesn`t belong to them, bullying others in the name of God and whitewashing the evil they do. In and of itself it`s a path to illumination, but fanatics are characteristically unwilling to leave it at that. They want to dress themselves in mantles of righteousness, and religion just happens to be handy to the purpose.

Sometimes stepping back from exacerbative headlines and breathless news anchoring is a matter of reading a good book or two. In this instance there`s none better than The Matter of Araby in Medieval England (cover, inset), by Dorothee Metlitski, a book published by Yale University Press in 1977. Read this book and you`ll never again see the current conflict of Christian and Muslim zealots in the same light.

Zealotry isn`t the exclusive province of Islam. Jews and Christians have more than their fair share of it, and that is an issue reflected in the current controversy over torture. Religious extemists of all three religions have resorted to terrorism in its many forms, and torture is one of them. Torturers are terrorists, and they can try to justify themselves on a thousand television shows and from a million pulpits, but at the end of the day they`re terrorists. Religiosity breeds exceptionalism and conviction in superiority. When journalists stir this toxic pot, violence is inevitable.

Can there be holy warriors without terrorism, without torture, without extremism? I`m smart enough or well read enough to know. But reading Metliski`s book will go a long way into the exploration of such questions.

Medieval Christians used all manner of disparaging references to the Prophet Mohammed and Islam. But the very concept of chivalry arose from this conflict, and it wasn`t, as popular history would have it, a Christian invention. It arose from mutual if wary respect and from intense observation of each other`s cultures. How many people know, for example, that medieval Arab mathematicians from Spain had a hand in creating the British Exchequer for Henry I of England? Or that the Vatican once felt threatened by the increasing trade between Vikings and Muslim Arabs? Or that many Muslims regard the financial industry that has turned us into a debtor nation immoral and usurious?

The way in which the conflict between Western and Muslim zealots is couched today in the news is like trying to use higher mathematics without the zero. We literally don`t know what we`re talking about, not the West, and not the East. We`re jerking each other around with the latest developments, and that is, of course, the royal road towards giving terrorists of any ilk what they want: center stage.

It may be put more succinctly: the news is a bomb in the hands of fanatics. The news inflates the egos and specter of violent loudmouths because it has little if any context. Nor are pundits and op-ed think pieces sufficient to pull us off the wrong end of the telescope.

What Christendom, Judaism and Islam don`t know about each other is a vast wasteland in which extremists get to lay their plots. Medieval Christians tried to paint the fiercely monotheistic Muslims as pagans worshiping many gods. Muslims painted the Christians as hopeless, ignorant barbarians. And Jews were usually held in contempt by both larger bodies, although it should be said that Muslims were generally more tolerant of them than Christians.

For example, long after the Crusades, when Ferdinand and Isabella had driven the last Muslim kingdom from Spain and expelled both Muslims and Jews, Muslim Turks mounted a rescue operation, using their naval superiority to fend off Christian persecutors.

Take the debate about Muslim detainees at Guantanamo. There`s nothing unique about it. Muslims and Christians throughout history have regularly detained each other, and their conflict is only a microcosm of conflicts between almost every culture and civilization.

The point is that we`re not as well informed as we think, and the assuredness with which so-called news is delivered beguiles us into thinking that we know much more than we know. And this in turn renders us vulnerable to such know-nothing-and-care-less extremists as Osama bin Laden on one side of the conflict and Dick Cheney on another side.

We can`t have the peace we say we want, not Christian or Muslim or Jew, until we understand and acknowledge how indebted we are to each other. Christendom`s clash with Islam enabled the West to leave the Middle Ages behind and become the West we seem to think sprang fully grown out of nowhere, indebted to no one.

It`s doubtful that extremists in any of the three great western religions know or care about indebtedness to each other. Did the murderous 9/11 boobs, for example, know how much Al Andalus, the Arab civilization in Spain, handed the West? Did they care? Do Christian and Jewish fanatics care?

What they care about is being right, and caring only about being right is the path to annihilation.

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

The pioneering Online Originals (U.K.), the only online publisher to receive a Booker nomination, published his novella, Alice Miller`s Room, in 1999. Recent fiction appeared in Prima Materia (Woodstock, NY), vols. I and IV, and Breakfast All Day (London, U.K.).In his younger days his poetry was published in literary journals including Solstice (England) and Beyond Baroque and Phantasm (California). Recent poems appear in Arabesques Literary and Cultural Review (www.arabesquespress.org), Perpetua Mobile (Baltimore), and Attic (Baltimore). He is the English language editor of Arabesques Literary and Cultural Journal (www.arabesquespress.org).

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.