Game of Words: thoughts on the usage of the term “Middle East” (By Varak Ketsemanian)

8 Jan

Game of Words: thoughts on the usage of the term “Middle East”

Penned by Peter Beaumont, Gerald H. Blake, J. Malcolm Wagstaff, the work The Middle East: A Geographical Study states that the term “Middle East” may have originated in the 1850‘s in the British India Office. Nevertheless, even after the “end” of European colonialism of the area designated as the Middle East, the term remains ubiquitous in every aspect of our modern society. Although the term makes sense in the mind of the user, yet such a locution has been highly criticized as emanating from a Eurocentric conception of world geography and history. Thus, the term is seen as a relic of the colonial era, when categorizing the races, religion and people of this region within one particular rubric was characterized knowledge production that tended to justify the rule of the colonizing powers. Nevertheless, I argue that although a problem may reside due to a lack better term, the locution itself is not misleading as long as the user articulates it from a clearly defined pool of knowledge that acknowledges the particulars and diversity of the area. In other words, despite the human mind’s habit of constantly associating things with one another, hence ossifying certain categories of knowledge that are more easily grasped by it, it can be argued that as long as the “Middle East” is used in a way that clearly expresses the context of its usage, the term is not misleading at all. In this sense, the establishment of nation-states and clear-cut boundaries after the collapse of the European colonial rule (1950’s and 1960’s)  has the propensity to spur this  paradigm shift much required for a better understanding of the region.

Current borders of Middle East

Current borders of Middle East

Until 1918, much of the territories designated today as the “Middle or Near East” were part of the Ottoman Empire. In this sense, the existence of a single ruler whose authority stretched from Constantinople to Mecca was instrumental in shaping a perception that tended to group all its inhabitants under one header: The Ottomans, despite cultural, linguistic and even religious differences: In the same token, there is a tendency to view the Roman Empire whose rule stretched upon territories we know designate as “Europe”, notwithstanding the major dissimilarities of the citizens under its rule. Therefore, until 1918, the reign of a single political unit accounted for the usage of the term “Middle East” as signifying not only a political, but also a single cultural, religious and social unit. Thus, with the rise of modern nation states in the mid 20th century, it is easier to characterize the region not as the Middle East in general, but also identifying the particular political units that comprise it, remolding the epistemic rubrics of our minds. In other words, upon the discussion of any feature of the region, one is compelled to identify the entity to which he is referring, as “Turkey”, “Iran” or “Saudi Arabia”, where each is characterized by its particular social, religious and cultural landscape, despite their co-existence in close proximity.  Therefore, the term “Middle east” when bereft of the colonial context in which it was coined, and complimented by a further identification of its modern day particulars- political coalitions, individual countries etc- can simply signify a region of the world that conveys very different cultural, social and even political pictures. Hence, Islam marks only one common trait that cements the units comprising the Middle East, and not necessarily its sole defining feature.

Marshall Hodgson attempted to circumvent the problem of “terms” by creating his own lexicon and methodology of designating this region of the world. Designating it as Islamdom, apparently by analogy with Christendom, Hodgson’s attempt places the region, again, under a unified religious banner yet this time, in a nuanced fashion.

Notwithstanding the “game of terms”, it remains necessary to study the Middle East as a unit apart from the other regions of the world geographically but not historically. Geographically, the Middle East forms a single unit only insofar as it has been ruled by one or two imperial powers throughout many centuries and unlike any other part of the world covers a vast area in which the dominant religion is Islam. In this sense, placing the Middle East under one category- where, for one example, Islam is in the forefront of human lives and politics- helps us compare it with other parts of the world where the religious influence is not as significant. Nevertheless, discarding the cultural and ethnic differences of the Middle East in favor of a sheer religious and linguistic commonality hinders our task of understanding the various intricacies that comprise the region. Thus, parsing out the region into numerous ethnic, political or cultural components in spite of their common Islamic denominator, shows that historically, the extent to which various units have been in contact with other parts of the world differ enormously, accounting thus for the various cultural and intellectual configuration that their respective society has taken. The complex structure of the Iranian society in Tehran, and the rudimentary makeup of a remote village in Iraq demonstrate that in spite of being Muslims, people tend to differ significantly over this vast geographical area. Therefore, a more accurate understanding of the Middle East necessitates not a replacement for the term but rather a redefinition in terms of major ethnic, cultural and even linguistic dissimilarities within Islam itself as well as  a cautiousness  to study the area as a historically single unit

Varak Ketsemanian

Varak Ketsemanian recently received his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy (with a minor in Middle-Eastern History) from the American University of Beirut (AUB). He is currently a MA student at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago. Ketsemanian has interned at the Armenian Weekly offices in Boston and is currently a project assistant for the academic journal Armenian Review.

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