Middle East of What?

By Sahar el-Nadi18.03.2012Global Policy

Abolish the idea of the “Middle East.” Rooted in imperial phantasies of the past, the term is neither descriptive nor value-free. We are Arabs, Muslims, Northern Africans – but not “people from the Middle East.”

I hate labels and stereotypes. In my cross-cultural project, I work to alert people to them and try to combat the problems they create. One of the labels I particularly despise is the so-called “Middle East.” Are you surprised? After all, this is a widely accepted geopolitical term that everyone uses, from students to high-profile international politicians. But when you stop to think about it for a moment you’ll easily see the problem. Try this simple exercise: go to an image search on your internet browser and type “map of Europe,” you will get hundreds of images of the same group of countries, with the same borders in different formats. This will also be the case if you wrote “United States” or “Asia” or “Africa.” Now, search for a “map of the Middle East” and see how many different versions of the map you will get, with totally different borders and number of countries, some will include or exclude countries like Iran, Turkey and Somalia. So, who exactly defines which countries can be included or excluded from the map of the Middle East? And what are the criteria for the selection? Let’s face it: there is no such thing as the “Middle East” except in the outdated imperialist and colonial ideas of the past. This realization hit me when I woke up one day asking myself the logical question: “East” of whom exactly? What if China ruled the world tomorrow, would Egypt suddenly be in the “Middle West?” Who exactly invented the Middle East? The term was first invented by Alfred Thayer Mahan in an article entitled “The Persian Gulf and International Relations,” which was published in the September 1902 issue of London’s monthly “National Review.” Mahan was called “the most important American strategist of the 19th century.” His concept that countries with greater naval power have greater worldwide impact had an enormous influence on shaping the strategic thought of navies across the world, especially in America, Britain, Germany, and eventually causing a European naval-arms race in the 1890s. Mahan’s “Middle East” referred only to Iran within the British imperial view of his time. His invented term was popularized in the writing of Sir Valentine Ignatius Chirol, who was a journalist, author, historian, and British diplomat. He was also a passionate imperialist and believed that Imperial Germany and Muslims were the biggest threats to the British Empire. Chirol was knighted in 1912 for his distinguished service as a foreign affairs advisor. In his book called “The Middle Eastern Question” Chirol expanded Mahan’s version of the “Middle East” to include “Persia, Iraq, the east coast of Arabia, Afghanistan, and Tibet.” Yes, you read correctly – Tibet! Obviously, the definition of the new geopolitical term adapted to the corresponding colonial interests that created it in the first place. After WWI, Winston Churchill became the head of the newly established “Middle East Department,” which redefined “The Middle East” to include the Suez Canal, Sinai, Arabian Peninsula, as well as the newly created states of Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan. Tibet and Afghanistan were excluded from London’s version of the Middle East. In the modern world, we now see Turkey changing its status from a ‘Middle Eastern’ state to a ‘European’ state. It is logical to conclude that the term “Middle East” is only an outdated, Eurocentric colonial label that has no clear formal definition. Consequently, it’s only fair to stop using this incorrect term, particularly because of the way it implies certain stereotypical ideas about diverse peoples and culture. As an Egyptian, I don’t mind being called Arab because that refers to the language I speak; Muslim because it refers to the religion; or North African because this is a correct geographical location. Yet, I refuse to be identified merely in relation to the location of other countries, or as an object of their military and economic interests. That categorization is absolutely irrelevant to my cultural and anthropological identity, and it serves only as a derogatory stereotype, implying negative images of a lesser level of civilization deserving a lesser level of respect. Moreover, it automatically validates the reverse, equally stereotypical term: “The West” in contrast to the “East” it invented. No one in the world today should take part in this vicious circle of stereotyping. I don’t only blame those who coined the term; I also invite people of my part of the world to reject this categorization. Accepting a label in my opinion is part of the problem rather than the solution, and what better time to turn a new page in international relations than right now, when monumental sociopolitical changes are taking shape in many Arab countries.

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