SACRED RAGE; The Wrath of Militant Islam. By Robin Wright. Linden/Simon and Schuster. 315 pp. $17.95.

FOR WESTERN CULTURE there is something especially emotive about Islamic fundamentalism. It stirs up a visceral antagonism that has fed off centuries of prejudice created by the Christian Crusades against the infidel.

Why is it, for instance, that a campaign by urban guerrillas in Germany against American targets arouses less outrage than the activities of Islamic militants against U.S. interests? The answer is not simply that terror conducted in the name of Islam is more widespread and spectacular. The response at both government and popular level suggests an almost irrational disquiet in the face of such a powerful faith. Martyrdom is particularly uncomfortable to digest in a society that runs after material well-being and longevity.

Robin Wright has set out to understand and explain the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism. This is a huge undertaking, and on her own admission is incomplete. Wright is primarily concerned with events following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and its catalytic effect on the Middle East.

As a journalist, Wright has had direct experience of the impact of Khomeini's revolution on the Muslim communities of the region, and this is very much a sound reporter's book. Although she has made extensive use of academics, the text is mercifully free of specialist jargon which can so easily clutter the debate about Islam, especially the Shi'ia sect, the main force behind the resurgence of fundamentalism. However, what makes her book worth reading is the way she treats her subject without sensationalizing or patronizing it. She resists, for example, playing up the reactionary role of women in the fundamentalist's world. Instead she sticks to her central theme -- what lies behind the violence and fanaticism of militant Islam.

Wright has a useful reminder at the outset: Islamic fundamentalism is not new, rather it has come and gone in phases. Equally martyrdom is not something invented by Khomeini but is rooted in the very tenets of the Shi'ia. The Prophet's grandson, Hussein, has been traditionally seen as a martyr, sacrificing his life in the 7th century to realize Shi'ia rule over all Muslims.

The present resurgence of militant fundamentalism comes from the Shi'ia in Iran where the sect represents the majority of the Muslims. Elsewhere in the Middle East the Sunni represent orthodoxy and are in the majority, with the Shi'ia at the bottom of the social pile. Thus the catalytic effect of the Iranian Revolution has been, first and foremost, to raise Shi'ia consciousness of its identity and strength, both vis- Muslims and the outside world.

Perhaps the hardest part in the West to understand is the literal practice of an Islamic state, which seems a step back into the Middle Ages. How is it possible, when the Middle East has been exposed to modern development, that such ideas can be accepted? Wright comments:

"The loss of morale and confidence in public institutions slowly, almost unnoticed at first, led many Muslims, Shia and Sunni, to turn inward. And inward they found Islam. It offered no strange new slogans or complicated alien ideology, nor reliance on an outside force that compromised their independence."

Put another way, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has been provoked by the failure of developing countries in the Middle East to develop effective modern institutions. Government has been through an elite, corrupted by office or oil wealth (or both) and without any form of channeling popular opinion. Significantly Nasser in Egypt was the one leader to have a populist appeal and he embodied much of what Khomeini tody represents -- nationalism and standing up for the underdog.

Shi'ism today at its crudest means standing up as the underdog, and Iran, as the largest Shi'ia community, represents a sort of giant underdog anxious to assert itself with self-righteous indignation. Islamic fundamentalism becomes a means of claiming a fairer deal in society and acts as a banner of international identity. It provides security at a time of change and increasing penetration of Western products and practices.

Wright quotes the matter-of-fact assessment of Mary Kerr, wife of Dr. Malcom Kerr, a widely respected Arabist and president of the American University of Beirut, assassinated in 1984:

"I suppose it's a group of people who feel bewildered about what's happening in the world today. They feel imbued with a cause of their own. They don't understand Western culture; they feel they have no say in what's going on in the world. It seems to me it's this kind of motivation that drives people to extreme fundamentalism, and toerpetrate the kinds of acts that happened to my husband."

Dr. Kerr headed the most impartial of academic institutions, which has kept going throughout the Lebanese civil war and which has been a continual flagship of all that is best backed by the United States in the Middle East. Dr. Kerr was not killed for any personal beliefs but as a symbol of the American presence by Shi'ia fundamentalists.

IF AMERICANS are bemused why Uncle Sam should be cast as the Great Satan by the fundamentalists, Wright provides the answers. America is seen to be backing corrupt unrepresentative regimes and is trying to impose a system of client states in the area that will faithfully purchase the products (often unwanted) of its multinational corporations. America is also equated as being synonymous with Israel, the alien state in the Middle East and scourge of Arab aspirations. Perhaps Wright does not give the latter sufficient prominence in the panoply ofhate. There is also another ingredient which she ignores -- the love/hate reaction to all manifestations of a society that manages to be so prosperous and internationally powerful.

Although Wright excludes it from her brief, it would have been useful to analyze the weak points in the fundamentalists' armor. She seems to accept too readily that Islamic fundamentalism is something here to stay for the foreseeable future. Yet it is interesting how Khomeini has begun to lessen his use of martyrs to clear up the minefields in the war against Iraq and how pragmatism creeps in to dominate rhetoric in many small ways. The Iranian Revolution in the name of the dispossessed has failed to carry out land reform and the power of the Bazaar remains.

In the last chapter, Wright changes from the basically descriptive to the prescriptive, providing a position paper on what the United States should do. She charges the Reagan administration with having been too preoccupied with the violence itself (against American interests) than with its causes. As a result issues have been simplified, and so have the responses. The Reagan administration, she maintains, has been concerned with punishment and vulgar revenge when made to look impotent by terrorist violence. Wright wants the United States to be less of a policeman in the Middle East and more of a psychiatrist.

There is a good deal of truth in this. Forceful reaction against the Muslim martyr psyche tends to fuel resentment and harden reaction into a cycle of violence. To break the cycle, Wright argues that the United States must regard the Middle East not exclusively as a theater of superpower rivalry and client states, and much more as a place where vital interests are at stake best served by better mutual understanding.