What is the Middle East?

These countries are sometimes grouped into the Middle East region, The term, Middle East, is a common yet contested description of a collection of countries encompassing Western Sahara, Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Oman, and Iran. European-centric term first though to gain usage in the mid-nineteenth century
These countries are sometimes grouped into the Middle East region, ©2016 T.R. Nimen for ilikum.org

The term, Middle East, is a common yet contested description of a collection of countries encompassing North Africa and lands East of the Red Sea including Iran. The controversy surrounding the term is twofold: first, the expression itself originated as a Eurocentric label and a byproduct of European Imperialism, presuming Europe as the center of the world with all other lands and peoples under its rule described from that reference point. Thus countries east of Europe but not too far east are the Middle East or Near East, and further eastern countries like China, Japan, and Indonesia are Far East countries. Needless to say, with the ugly legacy of imperialism and colonialism still lingering, many people from this diverse group of countries are not particularly enthusiastic about bearing an all-encompassing description assigned to them while under European rule. Still, the label exists and thrives in news media and political discourse.

Specific regions that are frequently used to define this area, ©2016 T.R. Nimen for ilikum.org
Specific regions that are frequently used to define this area, ©2016 T.R. Nimen for ilikum.org

Second, historians, governments, and nationalists disagree on which countries are or are not part of the Middle East region. Many North Africans see themselves apart from the Middle East citing differentiation in geography and cultural traits. Iranians often view themselves unique in language, politics, and geography, thus not groupable with the Middle East. Following this, a relatively new description of the region is the acronym, MENA, for the Middle East and North Africa. It has gained some traction in academic and governmental communication, but even so, the media still gravitates toward the term, Middle East, offering occasional differentiation between some geographically and culturally similar sub-regions.

Within ilikum.org, I generously use the term, Middle East, to describe Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Iran. I do this, not because I agree with painting the region with a broad brush that colors these diverse people into one Eurocentric idea. Instead, I choose not to weigh down readers with longer texts that may be more politically correct, but ultimately confusing while describing regions and countries geographically.

Regarding Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Greece, and other surrounding countries: historians and media sometimes group these places into the Middle East, and a portion of these countries’ citizens don’t care about this grouping, and some care to a much greater extent. I am not in the business of editorial imperialism, but I will include creative cultural production from areas surrounding the Middle East and further beyond when speaking about significant cultural production created by Middle East neighbors or refugees that correlates directly to social and political challenges in the Middle East region.

2 thoughts on “What is the Middle East?”

  1. “What is the Middle East” is a very informative and well-thought out section. It is sensitive and sensible in creating this kind of safe space to explore art and people of this part of the world. Thank for you this.

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