Editor's note: Hamid Dabashi is the author of "Iran: A People Interrupted" and the Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His most recent book is "Shi'ism: A Religion of Protest" (Harvard University Press).
(CNN) -- The roots of the sectarian division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims go back to early history and relate to Muslims' disagreement on the succession to Muhammad's prophetic authority. Throughout the medieval era, hostility has flared between Sunnis and Shiites.
But in the course of European colonial domination of the Arab and Muslim world, and following the old Latin doctrine of "divide and rule," such sectarian divisions, as in those between Muslims and Hindus or Muslims and Christians, have been abused, exaggerated, and exacerbated.
The overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunni, or "orthodox." A significant minority of Muslims, about 10 to 15%, are Shiites, or "heterodox." The Shiites are mainly concentrated in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen, but significant Shiite communities live throughout the Muslim world.
Soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, political strategists and military analysts, seeking to divert attention from the principal culprit in the misbegotten war, attributed much of the violence in Iraq to this sectarian division and the emerging rivalry between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia for dominance in the region. Echoing these strategists' assessments of a transnational Shiite uprising against Sunni domination, King Abdullah II of Jordan even spoke of the formation of a "Shi'i crescent."
In the revolutionary uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, particularly in countries such as Bahrain with a significant Shiite population ruled by a small Sunni leadership, the question of Sunni-Shiite hostility and rivalry has again resurfaced in predicting the course of the unfolding dramatic events.
This fear of a "Shiite crescent" or a resurrection of sectarian rivalries in the Muslim world, as in the fear of a renewed militant Islamism, is a false alarm built on a flawed reading of Muslims' multifaceted political cultures.
Recent history instantly discredits any assumption of a transnational Shiite solidarity against Sunnism. For eight long and bloody years, Iran and Iraq, two major Shiite countries, were at each other's throats -- Shiites killing Shiites on two sides of a national divide. Shi'a, or even Islam in general, has never been the sole deciding factor in people's political identity.
Today in Bahrain, people are much more attuned to Arab nationalism and even pan-Arabism than they are to Shi'ism. Within specific Shiite countries, loyalties and identities are fractious along many crisscrossing lines.
In Iran, a major Shi'a country, we are witness to a massive civil rights movement, recently galvanized and radicalized by the uprisings in the region. Shiites chanting "Allahu Akbar/God is Great" are engaged in street demonstrations against an Islamic Republic, a government based on Shi'a doctrines. All of these point out that Shi'ism is one among many other factors in determining people's political persuasions and social actions.
What we are witnessing in much of the Arab and Muslim world is not a re-enactment of Sunni-Shiite rivalries. It is the defiant retrieval of a vast and variegated cosmopolitan culture -- the assertion of a syncretic identity that is the result of distant and recent history. This vibrant and multifaceted culture can't be reduced to any sect or ideology.
Against all odds, people from Morocco to Iran, from Bahrain to Yemen, have arisen almost at the same time against a corrupt, disabling, and denigrating politics of despair -- against a colonial geography code-named "the Middle East" that no longer means anything.
It is imperative for Americans, their elected officials and policy analysts, to come to terms with what is happening on its immediate terms and not reduce them to cliché. Political cultures are neither reducible to their constituent factors nor fixed and stagnant.
People from Morocco to Oman, from Yemen to Iran are determined to change their destiny from a politics of despair to an open-ended moral imagination that navigates entirely uncharted course for liberty and dignity. In this process, every aspect of their religions and cultures will come forward only to the degree that they can restore their sense of pride of place and chart a new destiny.
The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Hamid Dabashi.