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The Middle East? What Even Is the Middle East?

posted on: Jun 17, 2020

The Middle East? What Even Is the Middle East?
A map of the Arab World

By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Author

The region of the world, referred to by most as the Middle East (ME), is culturally a diverse and rich area with a complex history and an even more complex problem with how to describe it. Upon closer inspection of the name, one could wonder what this region is in the “middle” of and what is it to the “east” of it. All other major world regions may not have obvious name origins, but they certainly do not simply use vague geographic descriptors. The name “Middle East” is problematic in its vagueness, but it is an archaic and Eurocentric holdover from when European powers forcibly divided and semi-controlled the region. As the world becomes more cognizant of how we describe people and places, a new name is needed to describe the incredibly diverse region most people refer to as the “Middle East.”

The Middle East? What Even Is the Middle East?
Other regions with names not based on their location (as taught in U.S. classrooms)

What is the Middle East?

Typically, the term “Middle East” is used to describe the following countries: Iraq, Iran, Cyprus, Oman, Egypt, Bahrain, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Palestine, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Kuwait, and Jordan. Some also consider that Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia are part of this region. In addition, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria are often discussed in ME affairs. Recently, the name MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) has become more commonplace along with various sub-region acronyms/names.

Generally, the area between Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and Asia is what the general public considers the Middle East. When hearing the “Middle East,” many people often think of Muslims, terrorism, and languages and cultures they do not understand or know anything about. In short, the term “Middle East” is vague, carries stereotypes, and maybe a significant reason for the confusion about the region and its people.

The Middle East? What Even Is the Middle East?
The common idea of what the Middle East encompasses

Where did the term come from?

The term “Middle East” was first used in 1902 by an American naval strategist writing about the region militarily. At the same time, the term “Near East” was used by the British to describe Turkey and the countries directly below it bordering the Mediterranean. At the time, the British had two military commands, one in Egypt (Near East Command) and one in Iraq (Middle East Command). In the 1930s, for financial reasons, the commands merged in Egypt, but they kept the Iraqi command’s name. Through this simple need for a convenient term, the region we know as the Middle East, a very Eurocentric term, came to be officialized by a major world power.

Why is the term so commonly used?

As can be seen in the history of the term, the British began using the “Middle East” in official documents, which led many other countries to adopt the name as well. Since there had been no common term for the region previously, the term was quickly adopted, became commonplace, and was never questioned.

In a journal article by C.G. Smith points out that, “perhaps the one reason why the term ‘The Middle East’ has proved so attractive and permanent is its very vagueness.” Even in our highly interconnected world today, the Middle East is still a mystery to many who have never been taught and do not seek out information about the region, its people, and its history. The term allows for a vague acknowledgment of the region and its peoples. Moreover, it allows those using it to make generalized commentaries and references to a region they know little of.

Not only do people not want to use a different term, but they struggle to identify a term that can be generally used because, let’s face it, generalization is convenient and easier.

What different terms should we use?

One of the strongest movements for renaming the Middle East is from those advocating to use the term “Arab World.” Within what is considered, the ME is 22 Arab-majority countries, which is without question the majority. Many dispute the idea that the “Arab World” should be used because there are at least 35 major dialects of Arabic, so they see it as another generalization. Despite this, it should be noted that every region of the world has a wide variety of languages. The idea here is to eliminate a vague term and replace it with a term that more accurately describes the region it refers to. The Arab World does not have to be a perfect cohesive region; it simply defines the countries within as speaking a common language.

The primary goal is to find a new term to describe this region of the world and move away from vague or inaccurate descriptors such as the Middle East, MENA, or the Muslim World. Even those who are not racist or prejudiced against the general Middle East still often imagine it as a large group of Muslims. However, according to the Pew Research Center, only 19.8% of Muslims worldwide live in the MENA area. In transitioning to the term Arab World there would be a lot more clarity for journalists, politicians, scholars, and the general public on the area of the world they are referring to. The Arab World would simply specify its region as containing countries with a majority Arabic speaking population without any other explicitly stated commonality. Hopefully, this would begin to dispel stereotypes of the ME or MENA regions and help categorize the region in a clearer and less Eurocentric manner.

The Middle East? What Even Is the Middle East?
Image from Pew Research Center: percentage of Muslims by region

How do we create these changes?

These changes will not be automatic, in fact, they will likely be hard-fought, and in the end, many will still use ME or MENA for a long time, but they can occur. The first and most crucial step is to change the language being used by world leaders, policymakers, teachers, and the general public. Hopefully, as this rhetoric is changed, people would begin to say the “Arab World” and remove ME or MENA from their vocabulary. As more people adopt this new term, it should also coincide with the removal of stereotypes many associates with the name, “Middle East” and will allow people to be more open to learning about and making lasting changes in their thinking about the Arab World.





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