Over the years many people have asked about the Middle East. What is this Islamism thing all about? Who are the Shi’ites? Why violence? What is the Iraq war about? Arab Spring??!
Going forward, I will be unrolling a series of short articles by way of beginning to answer some of these questions in a humble way. In particular I will do a little history, and go back in time— not too far — in order to provide some context to a region that was not born this way, but was made — like everywhere — by us and by them, (whoever “us” and “them” are). Watch this space, and have your coffee and narghileh at the ready as you catch up…on all the history that is unfit to print.
# 1. The Making of the “Middle East.”
I’ll discuss in a moment how this term came to be, because it merely reflects an idea, not a physical reality. So lets start by looking at how the region is traditionally described and then discuss what criteria are used to do so.
Geographically speaking, if there was to be any “middle” to the Middle East, it would probably be Egypt. Then it swoops down and across to the Arabian peninsular — Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Yemen, and then up to the “Fertile Crescent” and the “Levant,” today’s countries of Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, Iraq, and then up to Turkey.
North Africa is sometimes thrown into the mix, although wonks often talk about the MENA region, (Middle East and North Africa.) It would make sense to include North Africa — from Morocco to Lybia — because it shares an Arabic-Islamic culture with all the other countries, except Israel of course, which identifies as a Jewish state.
So culturally speaking, almost all countries within this region are either majority Muslim and/or Arabic speaking. The exceptions are Turkey, which is largely Muslim, but Turkish speaking, and Iran which is largely Muslim yet the majority of its citizens speak Persian. Those two countries are also geographically peripheral to most physical descriptions of the region, even if they often feature centrally in the region’s politics, largely because of their significant size, population, and wealth.
How did the geo-political Middle East come to be?