The Middle East, a gathering of countries and nations centered mostly in Western Asia and North Africa, has always been a puzzling entity. Its inhabitants are representatives of various nations with different cultural and religious backgrounds who are trying to co-exist with each other more or less successfully. In the Western mind, there is a common notion about the Middle East, according to which this region is mostly populated by a dominant nation with dominant religion. This is a commonplace definition invented by the West and mostly spread within the Western sphere of influence. Nevertheless, a closer look at the region demonstrates that the establishment of its unity is imposed mostly by geographical location. In terms of religion, culture, and language, it is diverse and turbulent, with many issues that very often find their outcome in harsh conflicts.
A lot of investigations have been devoted to the study of the Middle East, its historical, sociological, and cultural background. Nevertheless, the discussed region still lacks a clear definition (Amanat, 2012, p. 1). The Middle East stretches from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Morocco, and due its geopolitical value it has always been a playing field for numerous conflicts, sometimes involving a lot of countries at the same time. This part of the world has always been complicated and problematic; thus, sometimes it might be difficult for a Western citizen to understand its complex political, religious, and national issues. Constant conflicts and geopolitical games have been changing the scene of the Middle East. This scene is being changed up till now, with ongoing wars and protests in the Arabic world. Islam as a predominant religion in the Middle East has seized to operate as a unifying principle approximately since the 16th century, when independent Islamic empires appeared on the map (Amanat, 2012, p. 2). The Islamic world divided itself into the West, which referred exclusively to North Africa, and the East, a reference to Persianate and Arabic cultural and linguistic worlds (Amanat, 2012, p. 2). According to the Western geopolitical division, initially Asia was divided into the Near East and the Far East. The Middle East was discovered later, as it was standing out with its political importance, cultural and linguistic variety. This became more evident after the Ottoman Empire had collapsed and had been subsequently partitioned. The Europeans stepped aside from the Greek definition of Orient as its connotations had become mostly cultural and picked up East, which had a more geopolitical undertone (Amanat, 2012, p. 3). New independent countries together with Iran, Arabia, and Egypt made up a new category of the Middle East. When inventing this term, Europeans disregarded significant cultural and linguistic differences between these countries. Iran with its Persian heritage, Turkey with its new direction as a newborn republic, Egypt with its ancient history as well as the newly formed countries was transformed into a new geopolitical term. Hence, the name “Middle East” can be designated as a Western construct, as it was created by Europeans and represents European world outlook, which differs markedly from the Eastern one. What is more, the term Middle East itself is believed to display a deeply Eurocentric arrangement. It is also being widely used not only in Europe, but in the South-East Asia, Australia, and in both Americas. It is believed to prove a “preponderance of an essentially colonial construct” (Amanat, 2012, p. 3). The term “Middle East” is frequently used nowadays, while such terms as the Near East and the Far East fell into the shade. According to Amanat (2012), “The remarkable endurance of the term to the present day, in the headlines and in the political sphere, may best be attributed to tensions in its cosmogony” (p. 3). Such tensions include different geopolitical conflicts, oil exploration, Islamic extremism, and other tensions. To many scholars, the term “Middle East” is a framework, as they do not consider it to be a single entity (Amanat, 2012, p. 3). It is very diverse and stretches for thousands of miles, representing different races and religions, cultural and linguistic background.
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Nowadays, the Middle East consists of countries which have a lot of issues and disputes between each other. To some extent, it reminds Europe of its own 12th century. Its internal bonds are not as strong as they used to be before, and Islam is no more a common ground which used to unite them. For sure, it remains a common religion, but the numerous disputes between different branches of Islam lead not only to religious, but also to political disputes. Understanding modern history also affects today’s Middle East. Most Arabic-speaking countries have in one way or another experienced British and French colonial presence in their countries which has also affected people’s views. Turkey and Iran, which have never been colonized, were instead repeatedly affected by European military forces, diplomatic and economic interventions (Amanat, 2012, p. 4). Resentment toward European colonizers became a powerful unifier between the Middle East before they gained independence. Very soon they turned their anger towards newborn Israel, which they believe occupies Arabic lands. It is seen as a pro-Western intruder and reminds them of their colonial period. But even with the reference to the modern history, it can hardly be stated that apart from its geographical nearness, the Middle East nations, though having been connected by Islam, were close enough to form a culturally and politically solid regional entity. It is really important to understand the fact that since the term “the Middle East” was imposed by the European powers and has questionable ground, one should avoid using this generalized term when describing cultural, religious, and political matters of the region. Thus, understanding the origin of the name is important for understanding the situation in the Middle East. The name itself is rough, as at that time Europeans did not care much about precise geographical and cultural peculiarities of the region. They gave it such a name as they probably believed that the fact that most of the inhabitants belonged to the same religion and spoke the same language was sufficient enough to unite such a territory under one name. They were not concerned about national diversity when partitioning former Ottoman Empire territories into new countries as well. Besides, they disregarded the fact that some countries, such as Iran, had another cultural identity though sharing Islam. Thus, it is not surprising that many of those Iranians who used “the first private television in the Middle East” had also no idea about the Middle East and did not know Iran was a part of it (Amanat, 2012, p. 1). Christian citizen of Beirut and Muslim citizen of Tehran are unlikely to consider each other as compatriots. Moreover, they are unlikely to speak about themselves in the same context. Citizens of Syria and Jordan may be religiously, historically, and mentally close, but still there is no considerable reason to unite such an extended region under one name. The so-called Middle East is a region of European mind and its inhabitants may not even know about its existence. It also must be noted that according to some opinions, “the Middle East as an entity can be broken down – deconstructed- to more realistic and historically viable units” (Amanat, 2012, p. 3).
Current circumstances in the region require economic cooperation between its countries. No matter what cultural and historical differences they have, to survive their economies need cooperation between one another in the first place. Some of the countries are abundant in gas and oil, thus, they need to establish new contacts with their neighbors. Nevertheless, along with the necessity of cooperation, there are still tensions along with war and nationalist ideologies that very often diminish chances for cooperation. Today, Islam cannot become a basis for political unity, as it has a lot of sects, with some of them being radical and extremist. Thus, the inhabitants of the Middle East should face a challenge in order to find a strong basis for their Middle Eastern identity.
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To conclude, in order to single out a vast region between the Near East and the Far East, Europeans invented the term “Middle East.” This territory represents the European notion, as they observed the world map from their standpoint, which does not coincide with that of the so-called Middle East. The term itself became popular and widely used after the collapse of Ottoman Empire and subsequent establishing of new countries and rising of numerous conflicts. Therefore, the discussed term was invented by the outsiders and cannot unite all the peculiar matters of the region to the full extent. According to some opinions, the usage of this term should be reconsidered by partitioning it into smaller units. Apart from that, the term itself is not used by inhabitants of the Middle East in the same meaning, or even not used at all. Although there are a lot of political and economic ties between the countries of the Middle East, they need to spare no effort in order to become an integral political entity.