Opinion: No One Knows Where the Middle East Is

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Middle of where? East of what? I never realized how misleading the term “Middle East” is until it dawned on me that a region’s east or middle, is a proximal description. The term’s semantic flexibility is described by its definition: “the countries of southwestern Asia and northern Africa —usually considered to include the countries extending from Libya on the west to Afghanistan on the east.” However, this definition is one of the numerous interpretations made by government officials and scholars who are in disagreement with each other, which means that no one knows where the Middle East is.

The History of the Term

In the 1800s, Eastern Russia (Siberia in particular), East Asia, and Southeast Asia were referred to by Europeans as the “Far East.” The Ottoman Empire, which “encompassed most of Southeastern Europe,” was labeled the “Near East.” Logically, the “Middle East” was at the crossroads of the Near and the Far East, but the term was unspoken until 1902. People became familiarized with the term “Middle East” after it appeared in The Persian Gulf and International Relations, however, the book labels the Near East as also being a part of the Middle East.

In 1916, British officials realized that the land occupied by the Ottomans was useful to them in preventing Russia from influencing colonial India, which is why they plotted the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and worked to gain control of the various atomic provinces it was composed of. The Sykes-Picot Agreement and multiple other treaties and negotiations modified the Ottoman lands, eventually creating the modern Middle East, which was a combination of the former Ottoman lands and the territory between the Far and Near East.

For decades, the term was used solely by the British government, but during World War II, English-speakers became aware of the Middle East through “daily news reports about military developments in the area.” Britain also called its forces in the area the Middle East Command. The terms “Near East” and “Far East” slowly fell out of favor, but in English, the terms “Middle East” and “Near East” are interchangeable.

The Main Countries, Religions, and Ethnic Groups Associated With the “Middle East”

Different maps include different countries in their definition of the Middle East, however, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait are included in most maps. Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Berber, Tunisia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and Libya are also included, but only in some maps.

The main religions of the region are Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Even though religions are evenly dispersed throughout the area, most Maronites in Lebanon follow Christianity, while Judaism is followed by most Israelis. Islam is followed by the majority of the countries in the Middle East, however, most Muslims in the area are divided among Islam’s two distinct sects.

A majority of people in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt are Sunni Muslims, while Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain have a Shi’ite majority. 45% of Oman’s indigenous population follows Ibadism, which is another major branch of Islam.

Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, and Hebrew are languages that are spoken by the majority of the Middle East and are divided into three language families of related languages: Semitic, Indo-European, and Ural-Altaic.

The Middle East is also home to numerous ethnic groups like Persians, Assyrians, Kurds, Baloch, Turkmen, Arabs, and Armenians to name a few.

The “Greater Middle East”

Confusingly enough, the term “Greater Middle East” also exists and is defined as the Arab world, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. However, this term is also inaccurate and not useful for locating the region.

President Bush proposed the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI) to the Greater Eight industrialized nations (G8) as part of his “forward strategy of freedom,” which he hoped would target Islamist extremism in the Greater Middle East. His administration aimed to reshape the region because they believed that it lacked democracy.

The United States has been involved in conflicts in the Greater Middle East, namely the Yemeni War, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his 2003 speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bush declared that the Islamic traditions and values that people living in Greater Middle Eastern countries follow, contribute to the lack of democracy there. However, as The Globalist points out, “The desire for freedom is not just America or Western — it is universal,” and Bush’s condescending statements only contributed to the various stereotypes and misconceptions about the Middle East that already exist.

The Term Still Doesn’t Make Sense

The “Middle East” is used to simplify intercontinental areas of land. However, it’s quite arbitrary because it doesn’t describe the geographic region it is referring to and groups countries that lack cultural and religious homogeneity. The related acronym, MENA (Middle East North Africa) is also geographically inaccurate. Individuals have proposed the use of SWANA (South West Asia North Africa) and the term “South West Asia” as well. Although I agree that “South West Asia” is much better than “Middle East,” I don’t understand why there is a particular need to group and name countries just because they are geographically close to one another, it only reveals our obsession with labels.