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.

4 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.

  2. Thanks for your site. I was a young engineer in the mid 60’s. I lived in the Libya, Kuwait, Dubia , and Oman for a few years.
    Life was good for me during this time. The people treated my nice. Did not make many middle East friends but can not complain.
    I was in oil field construction. The company had decent living places for us ex-pats. Our food was western but occasionally we had the middle East food shared with us. I learned quickly to not be critical of their living customs. There was no violence at the time I worked over there. I did not see any sign of the problems we now hear of until the early 80’s.

  3. The Middle East is not synonymous with West Asia so I don’t know why you incorrectly depreciated the region. The Middle East is a geopolitical region not a continent. It’s territory is based on shared History and Politics. It began with the Arab geographers splitting the Arab world in half during the middle ages. They called the western part of the Arab world “Maghreb”(Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco) this was called the Maghreb region or the Berber world or North Africa. Maghreb is an Arabic word and it means where the sun sets, referring to the Western part of the Arab world. “Mashriq” on the other hand is modern day middle east and it Begins with Egypt and used to end with Iraq. The non Arab countries such as Iran, Turkey, Israel and Cyprus were later added when the modern European names for the region changed in the 19th/20th century and replaced the Arabic term for the region(The Orient, Near East, Middle East)←these were the different names given by the British for the same region. “In European historiography, the meaning of “the Orient” changed in scope several times. Originally, the term referred to Egypt, the Levant, and adjoining areas”.

    Mashriq is the Arabic word for where the sun rises, referring to the Eastern part of the Arab world

    So the region had it’s borders way before the Eccentric terms like “Near East” and “Middle East”

    The Maghreb(what people most likely refer to when they mention “North Africa” excluding Egypt which is part of the Middle Eastern region and is also part of North Africa but not the Maghreb) The Maghreb and North Africa have become synonymous over the years which confused a lot of people about Egypt because Egypt is not a Maghreb country but a north African country and a Middle Eastern country at the same time, and as I have mentioned, the Middle East is not a continent but a transcontinental region, etc etc etc so that created a whole bunch of confusion. I think the name “Maghreb” should have never been translated to North Africa because the Maghreb is a geopolitical region based on shared History, Culture, and politics, just like the Middle East, while North Africa is simply the Northern direction of the African continent. Big mistake. This confusion resulted in silly terminologies made by the West such as “MENA”(Middle East and North Africa) which makes no sense from a geographical stance. One is simply the direction of a continent while the other is a geopolitical transcontinental region where it’s geographical territory is based on History, culture and politics and not based on a single continent.

Have a comment on this ilikum article? Go for it!