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Nothing is more alarming than the threat or reality of burning the sacred text of another religious tradition. As if the contents of a particular book are responsible for the insults, injuries and death caused around the world in the name of religion.

The Quran, like the Book of Mormon and the Bible, should be approached instead with some sort of historical and structural study. This is preferable to hurling a few striking verses out of context as weapons that supposedly defeat a whole, opposing faith tradition.

The Quran, like the Bible, can be a book of great beauty. An example is the so-called Throne verse: "Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth. His light may be compared to a niche that enshrines a lamp, the lamp within a crystal of star-like brilliance. It is lit from a blessed olive tree neither eastern nor western. Its very oil would almost shine forth, though no fire touched it. Light upon light; Allah guides His light." (24:34)

But both Quran and Bible have harsh passages. The biblical Book of Leviticus says that slaves "may be your property." (25:44-46). And Psalm 137:9 says of a Babylonian woman, "Blessed shall he be that taketh thy children and throweth them against the stones."

The discussion of religious differences, including tough passages, is hard for all of us for two reasons. First, because we are just not used to talking about religion with other people and comfortably saying where we agree and disagree. If the people shouting "Burn the Quran" in public had been able to say instead, "I really don't agree with you on this issue. I'd like to hear your position, and then share mine with you," perhaps some of the religious forest fires burning out of control around us might be contained.

Putting out a forest fire, like starting an interfaith dialogue, is at its heart a local activity. A mosque, church, ward or temple could initiate joint projects, such as teaching immigrants English, helping newly arrived persons gain access to community services, and inviting them to share a meal on a special commemorative day. A community of well-intentioned people from different faith traditions could quickly come up with a reasonable list of what would promote peaceable life in any given neighborhood.

Second, there is a deep confusion about the meaning of religion and the character of the severe global political conflict around us. Religious and political language have become quickly confused. In many volatile countries, members of the world's religions are competing for diminished resources, populations are growing steadily, but available land for living and raising crops is either being swept away in floods or being turned into slums for the world's expanding megacities.

Educational and health opportunities diminish, especially for women and children. Within a few years, the world's urban population will be more numerous than its rural population. That's a monumental change, one with attendant stresses that often spill over into conflicts to which religious language is added.

Eliza Griswold, in a recently-published study, The Tenth Parallel, Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), describes the tragic collisions of Christians and Muslims struggling for survival in a world of clearly shrinking resources, in places like Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

For almost 1,500 years, religious coexistence has been a feature of life around us. Burning sacred books only feeds the fires of hatred. Griswold, after spending seven years along the 10th parallel's volatile political-religious fault line, wisely concluded, "Religious strife where Christians and Muslims meet is real, and grim, but the long history of everyday encounter of believers of different faiths, is no less real. It follows that their lives bear witness to the coexistence of the two religions — and of the complicated bids for power inside them — more than the conflicts between them."

Frederick Quinn, an Episcopal priest, is the author of The Sum of All Heresies, the Image of Islam in Western Thought (Oxford University Press). He is adjunct professor of history at Utah State University, and has taught courses on Political Islam and Global Islam at the University of Utah. He lives in Salt Lake City.