Where does the term Middle East actually come from?
These days the Middle East garners nonstop attention from the world. We hear stories of conflict, struggles, terrorism and other hardships that continue to plague the region. But where did the term Middle East come from?
The truth is that there is nothing profoundly historical or cultural about its coming to be. Originating in the 1850’s in the British India office, it was defined by British interests; a military zone set up to defend the Suez Canal and the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf.
It became widely known when an American naval strategist, Alfred Mahan, began using the term. It was at the time when Britain and Russia were playing ‘The Great Game’ for influence in Central Asia. Mahan stated the importance of the region and its centre, the Persian Gulf. He labelled the areas surrounding the Gulf the Middle East stating that after the Suez Canal, for Britain, it was the most important passage to control in order to keep the Russians from advancing towards India.
Mahan first used the term in his article “The Persian Gulf and International Relations” published in The National Review, a British Journal in September 1902. This article was reprinted in The Times and was followed in October by a series of twenty articles written by Sir Ignatius Chirol, entitled “The Middle East Question”. He extended the definition to include regions of Asia which extended the borders of and approaches to India.
Many have criticised the term Middle East for what they see as Eurocentrism. Originally used by Europeans, it reflects the geographical position of the region from a European perspective. Further aggravation occurs because today the term is often used to only refer to the Arab world, confusing the situation further.
Popularised in Britain in the 1900’s, the Middle East is a historical and political region of Afro-Eurasia with no clear boundaries. The fundamental question therefore is what constitutes the Middle East? Ask yourself, when you hear the term Middle East, who do you think it refers to? Even our politicians can’t agree.
There are conflicts and struggles from many sources as to which Countries really are part of the Middle East. There is the Wikipedia definition, the G8 Nations definition together with Al Jazera English, BBC, Encyclopedia Britannica, New York Times Style Guide and Webster’s New World Dictionary all of which cannot agree on the geographical accuracy of the term.
Until World War II, it was custom to refer to areas centered around Turkey and the East shore of the Mediterranean as North East while the Far East centered on China. The Middle East then meant the area from Mesopotamia to Burma, namely the area between North East and Far East. Turkey disputes that it is part of the Middle East. Is it better to ask the Countries themselves rather than rely on a Eurocentric notion?
One widely used definition of the Middle East is that of the airline industry, maintained by the IATA standards organisation. Their definition includes Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Palestine Territories, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, UAE and Yemen. This definition is used in worldwide airfare and tax calculations for passengers and cargo.
The region is regularly on international media and in our collective consciousness. Often we hear comments about trouble again in the Middle East. Surely that’s like saying trouble again in the West. It doesn’t help these countries flourish if all are tarred with the same wide brush of connotations broadcast through inaccurate reporting to an audience blinded by ignorance. All too often imperative facts are over-looked or more worryingly, not understood.
If the Middle East will ever be decided upon across the board geographically, there are still these major intricacies to attend to. According to the National Geographic-Roper Survey of Geographic Literacy, 63% of Americans can’t locate Iraq on a map. Astonishing since the US fought a 7 year war there. More than 2/3’s believe Iran and Pakistan are Arab countries. Chief of FBI’s National Security Branch was asked by journalist Jeff Stein whether Iran was Sunni or Shiite? His answer “Iran and Hezbollah”. Pushed further he hazarded a guess: “Sunni”. Wrong guess!
There is a collective breathtaking level of ignorance surrounding the region, its religions, its culture, its people and its countries. With the Middle East now in Europe’s back yard with the hundreds and thousands of refugees already here, maybe it’s time to get with the program.