Let's Eliminate The Term Middle East - And Response

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The term Middle East is imprecise, culturally and geographically biased, susceptible to misunderstanding, and therefore useless in terms of accuracy.  Though the term has been called Eurocentric, it is more precisely Anglo-centric, originating at the height of the British imperial century (1815-1914).  I also suggest that the related acronym “MENA” (Middle East-North Africa) also be dropped.

The broadest definition of the term “Middle East” came at the 2004 conference of the G8 nations, based on the definition of USA’s Bush administration.  This included the entire Muslim world, because to the Bush administration Middle East = Muslim = terrorist (or oil in the case of “friendly” regimes).  Often called the “Greater Middle East”, this list includes the “traditional” Middle East nations in Anatolia, the Levant, the Arabian peninsula, and Mesopotamia, as well as those in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and North Africa.

Anatolia, also called Asia Minor, is the peninsula containing most of the (soon-to-be Islamic) Republic of Turkey, its Asian portion.  The Levant includes Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Cyprus, the Sinai peninsula of Egypt, and Hatay province of Turkey, the capital of which is Antakya, the ancient Syrian city of Antioch.  The Arabian peninsula nations are Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, U.A.E. (United Arab Emirates), Qatar, and Bahrain.  Mesopotamia is made up of Iraq, Kuwait, and Iraqi Kurdistan.

The city of Antioch, the great rival of the Egyptian city of Alexandria for power and influence in the Eastern Mediterranean world in late ancient times (and with it one of the two great centers of Hellenistic Judaism), was founded by Seleucus I, one of the Macedonian Diadochi succeeding Alexander the Great.  It served as the capital of the dynasty that he founded to rule over the Seleucid Empire. 

Historically always considered part of Syria, Antioch has been part of Turkey since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.  No one in Antakya is at all eager to rejoin Syria at this time, however.  It is the most culturally diverse region of Turkey and celebrates that diversity.

The nations of the Greater Middle East as defined by the G8 (Group of Eight) and the USG (United States government) include the core Middle East nations of Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, UAE, Yemen; the North African nations of Algeria, Djibouti, Libya, Mauretania, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR; Western Sahara), and Tunisia; the South Asian nations of Afghanistan, Azad Kashmir (Pakistani Kashmir), and Pakistan; the Caucasian nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia; and the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

These G8 nations, by the way, are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States of America.  So here we have the absurdity of having an envoy from Russia, whose easternmost border comes to a mere 82 kilometers (51 miles) from the western border of the U.S.A. state of Alaska, referring to events in Morocco as happening in the “Middle East”.  Or that of an American cultural attaché in Athens discussing the same thing, something possible since the USG (United States government) still uses the same definition.

The term “Middle East” first began to be used by the British imperial government in the middle during the 1850’s, the decade that witnessed both the Crimean War, which involved all the major imperial powers of Europe and West Asia, and the assumption of rule of the Empire of India by the British government from the British East India Company.  As defined at that time by the British government, India included modern India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma, and, at least hypothetically, Afghanistan.

As a term useful to locating an area, “Middle” East has no meaning without having other regions on either side, which was the case with the imperialist colonial vocabulary of the British imperial government, where it was part of a referential scheme that included the terms Near East and Far East, all three referring to separate regions.  The system of terminology references the nations of Asia in relation both to each other, the UK’s Empire of India, and the Ottoman Empire. 

The term “Near East”, often mistakenly equated with “Middle East”, refers to Anatolia, Cyprus, and the Levant; in the case of the last, most of what is now Jordan was then part of Arabia rather than the Ottoman Empire. 

The “Middle East” was everything between the eastern outskirts of the Near East and the western border of the Empire of India. 

The “Far East” was everything west of the UK’s Empire of India.

Some writers have accused the term “Middle East” of being Amero-centric, but in the context of this three-term scheme that doesn’t make any sense because the UK’s “Far East” is America’s Far, Far West.  For example, Oliver Perry did not get to Japan by sailing around the Horn of Africa and through the Molucca Straits.  In another example, the Philippine Island were the most western of American’s colonial possessions throughout most of the first half of the 20th century.

Inhabitants refer to the area included in the Greater Middle East by other names: the Maghreb, which includes the North African nations along the Mediterranean Sea (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya), Bilad al-Sham (the Levant), and the Mashriq (eastern Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and the nations of the Arabian peninsula).  Egypt is not included in either the Maghreb or the Mashriq, nor is Iran included in the latter.  Egypt, along with the Sudan, are assigned to the Nile Valley, considered a region in and of itself.

The term “MENA” which I decried above is an acronym for Middle East-North Africa which at least acknowledges the difference between the two separate regions.

Another often misunderstood and misused term related to all of these is “the Orient”.  When I first heard the name of Agatha Christie’s famous novel, I though the Orient Express was in China, because at the time I heard it (mid-1970’s), “Orient” meant East Asia.  In truth, the line ran from Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul) from 1883 to 2009.  A plan by the governments of the German and Ottoman Empires to extend the line from what was then Constantinople to Baghdad, then part of the latter empire, and its nearby oilfields played a major part in sparking the First World War.

The term Orient derives from the Latin for “East”, and in the Roman Empire referred to most of the area of the “traditional” Middle East.  Its major usage came about after the division of the empire into four prefectures in the 330’s CE, one of which, taking in Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Libya, was called the Prefecture of the Orient.  Orient did not mean something distant, exotic, and foreign, just the eastern end of a far-flung empire in relation to its western half, the Occident.

In its geoscheme of the world, the UN assigns the nations of the “traditional” Middle East to the subregion of Western Asia, except for Iran, which it inexplicably attaches to the subregion of South Asia (the nations of British India) despite its millennia old cultural and historical ties and megannni old geographical ties to the former subregion.  Iran should definitely be included in Western Asia. Of course, the UN also assigns the subregion North Asia (Siberia), to the region of Europe, despite its extension  to within 82 km of North America and being part of the region or continent of Asia.

An alternate name for Western Asia is Southwest Asia, perhaps because of another subregion called Southeast Asia with which it is parallel.  However, since the subregion in question is almost entirely west of the meridian through the Ural Mountains and therefore directly south of European Russia, Western Asia is the more accurate.

So, this is what I propose: accept the name Western Asia.  This would lend itself to an acronym referring more accurately to the same area as the rather inaccurate term “Greater Middle East”, similar to that in current vogue (i.e., MENA) as WANA.  I think from the context in which it is used, folks will be able to discern that the writer or speaker is not discussing the Washington Association of Nurse Anesthetists.  Or if using the alternate designation, that the speaker or writer is not discussing the Solid Waste Association of North America.

Chuck Hamilton 

* * * 

I'm still trying to determine if you actually care about any of what you said, or if you just wanted a guise to take a pot-shot at President Bush without appearing to be doing so. 

Assuming you do actually care about the semantics of the term "Middle East," why not also go ahead and tackle the terms "African-American" and "Caucasian."  Both are used to refer to all members of a certain race, and only those members. The former refers to all black people, and *only* black people, while the latter refers to all white people, and *only* white people, despite the fact this is factually inaccurate in both directions. 

All white people are not from the caucasus region, and many non-white people are, indeed, from the caucasus region. Likewise, all black Americans are not from Africa, and there are many non-black Americans who are, indeed, from Africa. 

Side note: Nelson Mandela was referred to as a great "African-American" many times, despite the fact he was not an American. 

So, since you're so worried about semantics in commonly-used terms, go ahead and tackle those terms as well. Maybe one day we can become 100 percent politically correct and won't have to worry about hurting anyone's feelings due to one's perception of being "culturally and geographically biased." 

Jim Dothard
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