This op-ed originally appeared in The New York Times, March 5, 1989.
In preparation for the Middle East negotiations that led up to Camp David and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, I tried to learn as much as possible about the Moslem faith.
Anwar el-Sadat, Menachem Begin and I had several talks about our common religious beliefs, and Sadat emphasized the reverence that Moslems have for Jesus and the Old Testament Prophets. Although Begin rarely commented himself, there is little doubt that these expressions of good will helped us find common ground in political matters.
Later, when American hostages were held in Iran, I learned more about the fundamentalist beliefs that separated many Iranians from most other Moslems.
Although more difficult to comprehend, their seemingly radical statements and actions are obviously sincere. The melding of fervent religious faith and patriotism during the long war with Iraq has created an environment that has contributed to the furor caused by Salman Rushdie's book, ''The Satanic Verses.''
A negative response among Christians resulted from Martin Scorsese's film, ''The Last Temptation of Christ.'' Although most of us were willing to honor First Amendment rights and let the fantasy be shown, the sacreligious scenes were still distressing to me and many others who share my faith. There is little doubt that the movie producers and Scorsese, a professed Christian, anticipated adverse public reactions and capitalized on them.
''The Satanic Verses'' goes much further in vilifying the Prophet Mohammed and defaming the Holy Koran. The author, a well-versed analyst of Moslem beliefs, must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world.
The death sentence proclaimed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, however, was an abhorrent response, surely surprising even to Rushdie. It is our duty to condemn the threat of murder, to protect the author's life and to honor Western rights of publication and distribution. At the same time, we should be sensitive to the concern and anger that prevails even among the more moderate Moslems.
Ayatollah Khomeini's offer of paradise to Rushdie's assassin has caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author's rights.
While Rushdie's First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah's irresponsibility.
This is the kind of intercultural wound that is difficult to heal. Western leaders should make it clear that in protecting Rushdie's life and civil rights, there is no endorsement of an insult to the sacred beliefs of our Moslem friends.
To sever diplomatic relations with Iran over this altercation is an overreaction that could be quite costly in future years. Tactful public statements and private discussions could still defuse this explosive situation.
We must remember that Iranian and other fundamentalists are not the only Moslems involved. Around the world there are millions of others who are waiting for a thoughtful and constructive response to their concerns.Jimmy Carter, the former President of the United States, is chairman of the Carter Center, a public-policy organization.