The American news media still seem unwilling or unable to grasp the real significance of the Islamic revolution in Iran and its profound impact on other Muslims, particularly those in the Arab world.
We have placed excessive emphasis on the antagonisms between Persians and Arabs and between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and by so doing masked from ourselves the very real and revolutionary attractions that the achievements of the mullahs in Iran (however deplorable and retrograde they may seem to our secular, individualistc ideologies) exercise over the minds of the vast majority of Muslims, especially in the Muslim heartland from Egypt to Pakistan.
Of course, there are important doctrinal differences concerning leadership and succession between Shia and Sunni Muslims. At village level, particularly in Lebanon, this centuries-old difference has been covered by layers of communal and personal feuds to the point that Sunni and Shia may fight each other, less because they are Sunni or Shia than because of the accumulated weight of history.
Elsewhere in the Muslim world, however, ordinary Muslims downplay reports of a schism between the two branches of Islam as blown up out of all proportion by the Western media to explain more complex phenomena. The frequent comparisons in some responsible Western publications, including the Economist, to the Catholic-Protestant schism of the late Renaissance strike them as a distorted analogy that will do little to improve Western understanding of what is really happening in the Muslim world.
We tend to dwell overlong on the presence of large Shia minorities in Iraq, Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia, or Bahrain. But, when pressed, it is difficult to show that the presence of these Shia communities is in any meaningful way a cause of unrest. By and large, these communities are quiescent. Certainly, comparisons with a Fifth Column do not seem borne out by events.
The quasi-obsession with the supposed Shia-Sunni schism is just another symptom of a continued inability to comprehend the Muslim mind and an illusion of our persistence in analyzing events in that part of the world in Western terms, according to our own hopes and fears and not according to what Muslims feel or do. The problem is compounded by an overreliance on the views of intellectuals and leaders who share our own concerns.
Instead of focusing on the Shia-Sunni difference, which the Muslims, including Ayatollah Khomeini himself, feel to be minor, we would be better to examine the profound and generally positive impact that the Iranian revolution has had on the popular consciousness throughout the Arab world. For that is where the threat to the stability of regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or the Gulf states lies, not in Persian or Shia expansionism.
Muslim intellectuals rightly condemn the barbaric injustices perpetrated in the name of Islamic justice in Iran, but they cannot deny the importance of events in Iran for the man in the street. For Muslims, the Iranian revolution is the first successful attempt by a Muslim country to be really independent of colonialism in all its forms - political, economic, and cultural. Inevitably this gives rise to talk of ''If they can do it and succeed, then why can't we?''
This is precisely the danger or the hope, depending on one's ideological stance. For the most visible symbols of dependence on the West are the political elites who downplay their Islamic heritage and are perceived as aping the West. Aware of their vulnerability, many rulers have gone out of their way to adopt the more ostentatious trappings of orthodox Islamic practice. Only time will tell whether this is sufficient and in time.
Unfortunately for the West, many of the leaders most closely identified with Western values have also been corrupt. The Iranian revolutionaries are in effect telling fellow Muslims that they can only rediscover their own traditions and heritages if they overthrow forms of government alien to those traditions, including monarchy and military or one-party dictatorship based on secular socialism or Marxism. ''If you dare to follow us and do that,'' they are saying, ''then there will be an end to corruption and social and economic injustice. Abandon the ideology that has failed. Seize your independence.''
This is where the danger to the West's friends and its own interests really lies. It is compounded by a common perception of the United States as the close ally of the alien and the corrupt (such as the Shah of Iran) and the enemy of Islam (as evidenced by American refusal publicly to condemn Israel for its annexation of Arab - i.e. Muslim - lands).
It is the Muslim nationalistic and revolutionary dynamic released and embodied in the Iranian revolution that is the real force at work in the Muslim world, not Shia-Sunni schisms or even the centuries-old antagonism between Arab and Persian. In its power it is like the force of nationalism that swept 19 th-century Europe.
It is not inevitable that every friend of the West or all Western interests and values have to be swept aside by this tidal wave. There are many good reasons why this may well not happen, not least of all the national and temperamental indifference to ideological revolution of many Arabs. But if we want to help ourselves and our friends then we should not be doing what we seem intent on doing, namely proposing joint military exercises and offering security pacts to the Gulf states. The Arabs reject it discreetly but firmly because such overt identification with forces opposed to their independence would simply be asking for trouble.