Back in October the Rev. Jerry Falwell called Muhammad, the founder of Islam, a terrorist. This set off riots in India and may have contributed to the good showing of religious parties in the Pakistani election. About two weeks after he made the remark, Falwell retracted it. I think Falwell is an idiot. I will issue a retraction later.

In the meantime, I will concern myself with the Rev. Pat Robertson, the founder of the Christian Coalition, who has conferred on Islam in general the distinction of being worse than Hitler. "Adolf Hitler was bad, but what the Muslims want to do to the Jews is worse," Robertson said recently. And rather than apologize or retract in the manner of Falwell, Robertson went on ABC's "This Week" and repeated it all to George Stephanopoulos.

Jews might quibble. In the first place, it's impossible to conceive how anyone could be worse than Hitler. Second, Jews familiar with history might note that from Spain to Baghdad, it was the Islamic world that offered the Jews of the Middle Ages a fair degree of toleration -- not the Christian West. If there is anything inherently genocidal and anti-Semitic in Islam, it was somehow overlooked by most Muslims at that time.

Radical Islam, like radical anything, is a different matter entirely. As Robertson pointed out, Islamic clergy in too many Islamic countries have been permitted by their governments to traffic in the worst sorts of anti-Jewish -- and anti-Christian -- stereotypes. Still, distinctions have to be made and contexts taken into account. To sweepingly liken a thousand-year religion of a billion people to the ultimate in modern evil -- Hitler -- is reckless, ahistorical and just plain insulting.

After Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush went out of his way to emphasize that the enemy of the United States was not Islam but extremists who in no way were representative of the religion. He has repeated this message over and over, recently distancing himself from the anti-Islamic remarks of certain conservative Christian leaders -- Falwell, Robertson and the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham. Franklin Graham called Islam "evil."

Oddly enough, Bush is in somewhat the same position as certain political leaders in the Muslim world. He too is finding it awkward to deal with crackpot religious leaders. America's religious fundamentalists are Bush's core political constituency. He relied on them in South Carolina, for instance, to defeat Sen. John McCain in the Republican presidential primary.

This is a dicey situation. The last thing the United States needs is for the war against terrorism to become one between Christianity and Islam -- or, if you wish, the Judeo-Christian culture and the Muslim one. If that is allowed to happen, then Muslims who abhor Osama bin Laden and all he stands for will be compelled to take sides on the basis of religion, not ideology or politics. That would be disastrous.

But just as I and others have held certain Islamic regimes -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. -- responsible for the hate speech of religious leaders, so will Bush be held responsible for the rantings of Falwell, Robertson, Graham and others. After all, they are not peripheral figures. They are now mainstream religious leaders, courted by political leaders of both parties (especially the GOP) and treated with great, if undeserved, respect. Bush felt close enough to Franklin Graham, whose father has been a longtime Bush family friend, to have asked him to speak at his inauguration.

Bush has yet to denounce these preachers by name. But they all have earned a personal rebuke. Robertson and Falwell, you will recall, were quick to blame the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on God's wrath over liberal tendencies in the United States -- gay rights, for instance. When it comes to blaming, perhaps Robertson's personal best can be found in his book "The New World Order," in which he attributes the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth to "European bankers" (Page 267).

It is easy enough to have fun with such nonsense, but the situation is in fact sad. Falwell, Robertson and Graham are among the most famous ministers of our time, replacing the learned and, yes, liberal ones who offered the nation moral instruction during the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. Now we have preachers who do not counsel toleration and understanding, but a sort of bigotry -- an ugly and sweeping vilification of a whole people, in the manner of the very Islamic radicals they condemn.

Now I must make my retraction. Okay, Falwell is not an idiot.

Robertson is.