When a Jewish settler - an officer in the Israeli army reserve called Baruch Goldstein - burst into a Hebron mosque in 1994 and massacred 29 Muslims there were no headlines about "Jewish madness". Goldstein, presented by his friends as a homely Jewish doctor who had become enraged by Arab "terror", was referred to as "deranged" and a "fanatic". At no point was his religion connected to his act. Similarly the Christian Phalangists who slaughtered up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians - most of them Muslims - in the Sabra and Chatila camps in Beirut in 1982. This particular bloodbath was not called "Christian madness", nor were its perpetrators described as "Christ's lunatics" - even though many had pictures of the Virgin Mary taped to their gun-butts. No, the 1982 massacre was portrayed as Arabs killing Arabs, or - in the infamous words of Israeli prime minister Menachim Begin, whose Israeli soldiers had surrounded the camps and were watching the killings - "goyim killing goyim".
There's a double standard at work here, of course. But also a desire to avoid confronting a very frightening phenomenon, one that we desperately hope - and, if we have faith in any god, pray - is not true: that the bloodshed visited upon the innocent in the Middle East may not be the result of religion used as a cynical tool for a political aim, but may spring instead from the religion itself. What we do not want to think about in the region - what we cannot accept - is that the three great eastern religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism may themselves bear some responsibility for the atrocities committed in their name.
It is an odd and disturbing fact that adherents of these faiths often seem more liberal the further they are from their holiest cities of Jerusalem and Mecca. The English vicar, the liberal rabbi in London, the Muslim scheikh in Birmingham are folk we enjoy meeting. But the moment we encounter the Christian right-wing pilgrims to Jerusalem, the Jewish supporters of Eretz Israel in the West Bank, or the Saudi religious police in Mecca with their absolute belief in Islamic sharia law (obligingly passed on to their chums in the Taliban in Afghanistan), the less attractive these religions become.
I noticed this in Beirut back in 1990 when Lebanon's Christian rebel general Michel Aoun had launched a hopeless "war of liberation" against the Syrians. The Pope began praying for the Maronite Catholics of Lebanon and Cardinal John O'Connor of New York arrived to offer his condolences to the Maronites - but not to the Muslim families who had suffered under Aoun's shellfire. Aoun - now exiled in Paris - was a messianic figure who banned opposition newspapers from his area of Beirut and ordered the midnight arrest of army officers; but around the doors of his bunker above Beirut there fluttered many a cape of Vatican purple.
Of course, every religion has its real eccentrics. One of my favourites is Father Neil Horan of London, a priest who regularly writes to me to explain why his reading of the Bible has convinced him that a nuclear world war will start over the possession of Jerusalem - a "war of Armageddon, the war to end all wars" - during which Jesus will return to earth and become chief of staff of the Israeli army. After this, according to a map Mr Horan has sent me, Israel will occupy the entire Gulf (including Saudi Arabia), the Egyptian Sinai, half of Iraq, three quarters of Syria and all of Lebanon.
Mr Horan states that the Jews' claim to Jerusalem is the only valid one and that traditional Muslim beliefs about the Bible are "false and malicious". These ramblings may be harmless enough; less so, however, when the Jews' right to all of Jerusalem is supported by tens of thousands of armed settlers living illegally on occupied Arab land and by members of the Israeli cabinet. And the American Christian right - both feared and respected by US presidential candidates - took a full-page advertisement in the New York Times last spring to urge Christian support for Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem, even though such a demand struck a dagger at the heart of the so-called "peace process".
Prominent among the names on that advertisement was Pat Robertson, the US evangelist whose friends used to give financial support to a Christian fundamentalist radio station in southern Lebanon which not only proselytised hopelessly among Shiite Muslims, but carried regular threats against the local Muslim villages of Lebanon.
He certainly has opposite numbers in the Muslim faith. For years, the Saudis would pour money into fundamentalist Islamic movements across the Arab world. The Saudis gave money to the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria (before it was banned in 1992), to the Arabs who fought in Afghanistan - some of whom now constitute the core of "Islamist" violence against the north African regimes - and to the totalitarian, sexist and brutal Taliban.
It remains the case that few Islamic scholars have tried - or dared - to condemn the most barbarous acts supposedly carried out in Islam's name. The number of Muslim preachers who have passed sentence against the butchers of Algeria's villages is pitifully few. The sheikh of Al Azhar, the ancient Islamic university in Cairo, reproached the Luxor killers of the Gema'a Islamiyah (Islamic Group) last week. But he was almost alone in doing so. When last March, another Egyptian Muslim extremist group - "Jihad Movement - Vanguards of Conquest" - called for a holy war, following the slaughter of Israeli schoolgirls by a Jordanian soldier, their appeal was couched in the most frightful and racist terms. "The only path to regain [Muslims] rights [in Jerusalem]," it said, "is the path of sacrifice - the path taken by the Jordanian soldier who emptied his machine gun into the breasts of the grandchildren of monkeys and pigs." Not a single Muslim prelate commented on this vile statement.
Yet it is not much different to the words of a pamphlet delivered to the door of a Muslim reader of The Independent who - quite correctly - handed it at once to the police. It was sent in the name of Kahane Chai (Kahane Lives), named after Meir Kahane, the fanatically racist American rabbi with an arrest record for conspiring to manufacture explosives, who was murdered by an Arab in New York in 1990. The pamphlet promised an Israel that would stretch "from the borders of Russia to the River Nile" and warned the Muslim recipient that if he and his family and other Muslims resisted Israel and refused to make peace on Israel's terms, they would be treated like the victims of the massacre at Qana - when more than a hundred Muslim refugees were slaughtered by Israeli army artillery fire in a UN camp in southern Lebanon last year. "Muslims, your lives are [to] ours like the sheep to the butcher," it said.
One of Meir Kahane's most ferocious supporters was Baruch Goldstein - or "Dr" Baruch Goldstein as I was told to call him by a pro-Israeli Independent reader who insisted he could never be defined as a "terrorist" - who killed the 29 Palestinian worshippers in the Hebron mosque. The tomb of this mass-murderer is now a shrine in the nearest Jewish settlement to Hebron, a place of pilgrimage for thousands of right-wing Israeli Jews.
The climate still exists, of course. In Washington, Muslim murderers remain "terrorists"; Jewish and Christian murderers of the Middle East are not "terrorists". One of the bravest men to raise these double standards is Dr Israel Shahak, author and retired professor of organic chemistry at the Hebrew university in Jerusalem, whose examination of Jewish religious fundamentalism is invaluable. In his new book Jewish History, Jewish Religion, he concludes that "there can no longer be any doubt that the most horrifying acts of oppression in the West Bank are motivated by Jewish religious fanaticism." He quotes from an official exhortation to religious Jewish soldiers about Gentiles, published by the Israeli army's Central Region Command in which the chief chaplain writes: "When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah (the legal system of classical Judaism) they may and even should be killed ... In no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilised ... In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good."
This disgusting advice may not, of course, be heeded. Nor may the frightful appeals of Algerian "Islamist" groups. We can comfort ourselves by concluding that every religion has its extremists, that fundamentalism is an aberration rather than the logical result of any literalist reading of the Middle East's holy books. Is there a problem because there is no New Testament for two of these religions - no message of "turning the other cheek"? Or because there was no renaissance in the Middle East? It would be pleasant to draw some coherent explanation.
Alas, I fear there may not be one. Religion is about ultimate truth and faith. And those who believe in such total truths - to the extinction of other, invalid "truths" - live near their holy cities. Fundamentalists, after all, help rule Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan Sudan and - given the make-up of Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet - Israel as well. The Egyptian government has co-opted fundamentalist preachers. The Christian fundamentalist right in America exerts its baleful influence over the Middle East. And when an Arab scholar last year asked the Pope to apologise for the Crusades - the greatest act of ethnic cleansing and barbarism in the Middle East in a thousand years - he received only silence by way of reply.
Are extremists - the killers and the racists or the eccentrics - mere defects in the world of religion? Or are they an inevitable part of it in the Middle East? I fear the latter. Perhaps it is time we recognised this poison for what it is. For there is nothing so hard as the rock of belief. And nothing so potentially cruel.