What is "The Middle East"?

What is the Middle East?

It’s a tricky question, because it’s a pretty flexible term that combines geographic, linguistic, cultural, political, and historical boundaries.
The most commonly accepted boundary is a geographic one that includes the Arabian Peninsula along with Egypt, Turkey, and Iran, three of the biggest and most prominent countries that are generally included as part of the “Middle East” – these are the darkest green areas of the map above.

The problem with this definition is that it excludes some substantial portions of the Arabic-speaking world in North and East Africa. Despite the fact that not all Middle East countries are Arabic-speaking (Most notably Iran, Israel and Turkey) the commonality of language between North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, along with other recurring (though not universal) features like former Ottoman and French governance, mutual schools of religious thought, commonly shared literary traditions, rentier economies, and the ongoing struggle to balance Islamic authority and political authority, has lead many scholars to refer to the region as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This is most of the medium-green part of the map above.

Muddying the waters further, the area that is described by the term “North Africa” also includes some not-so northern African countries like Mauritania on the western coast of Africa (Arabic speaking , long shared history with Morocco) , Sudan (Arabic speaking, once part of Egypt, but clearly sub-Saharan), Somalia (not even close to North Africa, but Arabic speaking and geographically close to Yemen and Saudi Arabia). Just for the sake of adding less clarity to an already muddled issue, I should point out that Ethiopia – right in between Sudan and Somalia, and also quite close to Saudi Arabia and Yemen – is NOT considered to be part of the middle east, primarily because it is not an Arabic-speaking country, it is predominantly Christian (Coptic), and it was never part of an Islamic kingdom.

The issue of religion adds some other factors to task of identifying regional boundaries. Looking at the map below, the countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the same medium-green color as the North African countries on the map above. These are not Arabic speaking countries – Arabic is a Semitic language whereas Urdu (the language of Pakistan), Pashtu and Dari (the two main languages of Afghanistan) are from the Indo-Iranian language family (though they are written using Arabic script). Despite the linguistic differences, Afghanistan and Pakistan have strong historical and geopolitical ties to several of the countries of the Middle East, and so a more general term has come into common usage in order to encompass these two important regional players – The Greater Middle East.

So, here's where it gets complicated. (Okay, to be fair it got complicated a long time ago, but bear with me)

There are very good reasons for including Afghanistan and Pakistan in the roles of what we consider to be the Middle East, but the questions “what are in the Middle of?” and “what they are east of?” become much more ambiguous. This has been made even more complicated by the fall of the Soviet Union and the sudden independence of several additional "-stans" – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Excepting Tajikistan, these countries speak various languages from the Turkic family, which is completely different then the Indo-Iranian and the Semitic language groups that I previously mentioned (Tajik is from the Indo-Iranian family). However, despite the substantially different cultures and languages of this region, there are familiar problems with entrenched autocrats funded by substantial oil and gas reserves, a colonial legacy, predominantly Muslim populations – all good reasons to group it with the broader pantheon of Middle East countries. Although sometimes included in the term "The Greater Middle East" these countries are more commonly referred alongside of the Middle East, as in, "The Middle East and Central Asia" These are most of the light green parts on the map above.

The map also includes another light green portion - the lower half of the Caucasus region: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia - these are also sometimes included in either the list of Central Asian countries or the countries of The Greater Middle East. Of those three countries only Azerbaijan is predominantly Muslim, but all three still have substantial economic ties to the Middle East, and significant diaspora populations throughout Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East.

So there you have it:

The Middle East = the Arabian Peninsula + Iran, Turkey, and Egypt (oh yeah, and Cyprus)
MENA = The Middle East + North Africa, Somalia, Sudan, and Mauritania (oh yeah, and Djibouti)
The Greater Middle East = MENA + Afghanistan and Pakistan (oh yeah and maybe the Southern Caucasus)
The Whole Shebang = “The Greater Middle East and Central Asia”

Here's a pretty good MENA map with country names (except they left Somalia off of this one).

So, in light of my blog’s header description, "An anthropologist writes on the current situation in the Middle East" what part of the world am I describing?

Well…Although I find the Central Asian countries to be fascinating, and despite the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan are HUGELY important right now, for the sake of coherence most of what I write in this blog is focused on the MENA. If the elements of unrest and revolution that we are seeing in the Middle East and North Africa start showing up in Central Asia I will certainly try to address that in a way that keeps it contextually relevant, but quite frankly, as with sub-Saharan Africa, I simply haven't had the extra lifetime or two that it would take to fully understand the nuances and intricacies of so many additional countries (which is not to say that I fully understand the nuances and intricacies of the Middle East and North Africa, but at least I've got a start).