Today marks the 14th centennial of the founding of Islam. This event has occasioned the U.S. Senate to pass a resolution that, among other things, acknowledges that "the 'House of Islam' extended gracious hospitality to philosophy and science in both the East and West when these scholarly discidice, thus preserving this precious heritage for subsequent generations."

Followers of Islam number about 800 million worldwide. Yet, for a variety of reasons, little is known about Islam in the West. The seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the approval of that act by Ayatollah Khomeini reinforce the stereotypical image of the Islam as a harsh and forbidding faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. Iran exemplifies the disregard of religion by men of religion to achieve political purposes in the name of religion. The problem is not with Islam; the problem lies in its interpretation.

It is customary for Muslims to begin almost everything from driving to eating with "Bismillah Irrahman Irrahim." Literally, it means "in the name of Allah the merciful and compassionate." Yet there has been nothing merciful in the beginnings of Khomeini's Iran and, on a lesser scale, in Prime Minister Zia's Pakistan. Both think of themselves as agents of God's will, by enacting laws and endorsing deeds that, in effect, defeat the tenets of the faith they purport to advance.

Public whippings, summary executions, terrorizing diplomatic emissaries are not Islam, just as racism lynchings and the Inquisition were not Christianity. Since a considerable portion of religious fervor emanates from emotional attachment, religion will always remain vulnerable to political exploitation.

In Pakistan, the flawed personality of former prime minister Ali Bhutto fell victim to an intimidated Supreme Court, egged on by a medieval theocracy that, in turn, was used by the army to eliminate a viable civilian alternative to its rule. Here, world opinion was defied and a dangerous political adversary removed in the name of Islam.

Elsewhere in the Islamic world, the ruling classes find it expedient to maintain their control by perpetuating mass illiteracy. Although the Prophet Mohammed placed great emphasis on learning, progress and education are blocked by presenting them as un-Islamic.

In Iran, the inviolability of diplomatic emissaries is being flouted -- and that, too, in the name of Islam. The rage of the Iranians toward the U.S. government is understandable. It can be compared to the outrage Americans would have experienced had Richard Nixon, instead of resigning in 1974, continued as president until 1999 by virtue of a coup planned by a foreign power -- and had Nixon then fled, say, to China, after plundering the U.S. Treasury and holding the U.S. people hostage for 25 years.

Still, the legitimacy of the Iranian grievance does not justify the violation of the most fundamental precept of international law by holding diplomatic personnel as bargaining chips. Some of the Iranian students, by tactless demonstrations, have erred seriously in alienating the people of their host country whose citizens are being held captive by the students' fellow nationals. Once again, Islam was invoked.

Before Khomeini and Co. master the nimble Western ability to match bleeding-heart rhetoric for human rights with concurrent acquiescence in its abuse, they should be told by the informed Muslem community that Islam is an instrument of socioeconomic justice and not of vindictiveness.

They should also be reminded that prayers, fasting and other pontifications are mere hollow and procedural rituals unless they are supplemented in substance by compassion and active concern. The Prophet Mohammed meant Islam to be a compreshensive guideline to mankind underpinned by empathy and tolerance. Today, his "followers," through their contradictory conduct, are misrepresenting Islam and succeeding only in leaving a legacy of crueity and hatred.

For its part, the United States can, by overreaching, only play into the hands of its foes. If international law has been broken in Tehran, the United States should not descend to the same level by breaking its own constitutional law to get even.

Now it is between Iran and the United States -- with principle and sympathy, in the issue of hostage-taking, lying with the United States. If, however, there is overreaction in Washington, the whole situation may escalate into a broader U.S.-Islamic world confrontation. Here lies the greater danger to U.S. interests and world order.