Updated: Jun 21, 2020
The Middle East is a Confusing Place
Let’s get something out of the way. The Middle East is an enormous place with a variety cultures, beliefs, governments, and peoples. Distilling the Middle East to “one” issue is an inaccurate way to describe a vast area and diverse population.
However, much of our modern media presents the Middle East as a single issue. And to many people around the world, the Middle East appears to be a single issue. By the end of this post I hope that you’ll no longer see it that way.
Let’s get what we know out of the way:
The Middle East is a mess, and parts of it are very dangerous.
Oil has something to do with it.
Islam also has something to do with it.
The United States has been involved in the Middle East for a long, long, time.
Okay. Phew. That’s the easy stuff. It only gets more complicated from here. Are you ready?
The First Step
Don’t worry. We’re going to take it one step at a time. The first step is to identify why so many people have a difficult time understanding the issue.
After some deep thinking, I’ve identified 3 TRAITS of the Middle East that seems to prevent many people from fully understanding it:
The Middle East doesn’t have a definitive geographic border. This makes it difficult to understand the major players and the breadth of the issues associated with the Middle East. If you don’t know where it ends, you won’t know where it begins!
Each country has its own culture, its own government, and its own diverse population. This makes it difficult to decide who to agree with in any particular skirmish or disagreement. It also makes it difficult to paint any one country as BAD. Part of the reason World War II is so easy to understand is because Hitler was clearly EVIL. For the most part, that doesn’t happen in the Middle East.
There are even more countries with their business in the Middle East. Seriously, everyone wants a piece of the Middle East (or they at least want to intervene for some reason). There’s oil there. There are powerful people there. There are powerful governments there. And everyone OUTSIDE of the Middle East wants to intervene IN the Middle East. But, again, it’s difficult to paint any one country as BAD.
Long story short, there’s a lot of ambiguity in the Middle East.
A General Overview
I’ll be blunt with you. I won’t be able to catch you up on each country’s history, politics, and governments. That’s just not realistic and you’ve certainly come to the wrong place if you want that level of detail.
But I can definitely give you a general overview. (It's kind of the whole point of this blog...)
Let’s start with the geography of the Middle East.
There are three types of “Middle East”.
The first, pictured below, is the generally understood area known as the Middle East, as opposed to the Far East or the Near East. (Also, these are outdated terms, so I don't recommend using them in every day conversation).
However, this depiction isn’t entirely accurate. Where is Afghanistan? Where is Pakistan? And what about Georgia?
Some would argue that these countries aren’t part of the “core” group of countries known as the Middle East.
But most would argue that they are.
As you can see, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Georgia are all now included.
I’ve also included Central Asia (that little grouping of countries above Iran and Afghanistan).
These countries are all involved in Middle East politics and share many of the same cultural value. They also share many of the same struggles that have befallen the rest of the Middle East…
This brings us to the third type of “Middle East”, a region named the Greater Middle East.
The Greater Middle East is the most important map here. And while not entirely accurate (many people would include Sudan, Somalia, and many other countries in this definition), it's a useful place to begin with our five-part series on the Middle East.
Many of the countries seen above share similar values and have unstable governments. Many of these countries have also struggled with colonialism in the past (we’ll talk about this in a bit).
But most importantly, this map of the Greater Middle East contains a large number of Arab countries.
Why is this important to understand? Because much of the turmoil in the Middle East has to do with the Arab world. And while many of these countries in Africa aren’t directly related to the turmoil in the Middle East, they do embody many of the same issues that have befallen the countries that are definitely in the Middle East. And this map of the Arab world resembles much of the land that USED to be occupied by Britain, Spain, France, Italy and the Ottoman Empire.
Now let’s talk history.
We’re Talking History Now
Now that we’ve figured out the geographical boundaries of the Middle East, let’s take a look at a general overview of the history of the Middle East.
The modern history of the Middle East begins in the late 1800s.
Close your eyes and imagine a single empire that is the preeminent Islamic empire, a government that is ruled by Islamic law and occupies a lot of land in Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East.
Are you picturing it?
Good, because it’s the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire definitely existed.
This is the Ottoman Empire in 1801. They’re pretty powerful dudes.
Let’s fast forward 100 years. We’re now in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Now close your eyes and imagine a world in which the biggest powers in Europe (Britain, France, Spain, Italy etc.) have basically taken over Africa and split it up among themselves. Good, because that’s what the world looked like in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This definitely happened too.
Take a look at that north coast of Africa. It’s owned by the British, the Italians, and the French, (and the Spanish up there in the corner).
Did the British, French, Italians, and Spanish force their way into this ownership? You bet.
Are the British, French, Italians, and Spanish controlling and unfair to the colonies? Oh yeah.
Are the citizens of these controlled areas unhappy? Yessssir.
Is the situation unstable? Hell yeah.
Hold up, didn’t the Ottoman Empire used to have a lot of this land? WELL THEY DON’T ANYMORE.
It's called COLONIALISM. Get used to it.
Hold on. Did you hear that noise??
IT’S WORLD WAR ONE!!!!!!
Some battles happen. One side wins the war, the other side loses the war. The Ottoman Empire is one of the losers.
What happens to a loser in a World War? That’s right. They lose some land. The Ottoman Empire loses some land.
(Deep breath in) So, the Ottoman Empire shrinks, turns into Turkey, some of the land becomes new countries, some of the land is ruled by Britain, WWII happens, some of the new countries are ruled by France, an agreement gets made between some countries, decolonization happens, Britain loses Egypt and some other land, France loses the land it just got, and everyone is generally unhappy (Deep breath out).
Now, all the land that’s been occupied by other countries….well it’s suddenly not occupied by other countries anymore. So, what happens to it? Well, we’ve got some fresh new countries for you. And these fresh new countries have fresh new governments. Everyone's getting fresh new governments! They're all the rage.
So now you’ve got a good portion of the Middle East with new nations that have some people who liked the Ottoman Empire, some people who don’t, some people who liked colonial rule, some people who don’t, some people who want a Muslim-led government, some people who don’t, some people who think their country deserves more land and more power, some people who are content with what they have.
Long story short: IT’S A MESS.
Now that we SORT OF understand how the Middle East got to where it is today, we can begin thinking about the people who lived in this area.
Two questions to consider:
How do you think the people who live in the Middle East feel about all this turmoil happening around them?
What would YOU do if all this turmoil happening was happening around YOU?
It turns out some people aren’t happy. BIG SURPRISE.
It turns out some of these people feel strongly about Islam.
It turns out some of these people who feel strongly about Islam are LOUD.
It turns out that these loud people will have quite the influence on other people.
I think you can sense where this is going.
(And don’t even get me started on the discovery of oil…..)
In our next post on the Middle East, we'll take a look at how religion, unstable governments, and some nosy countries began to define the way we look at the Middle East today.
If you're interested in reading more about the Middle East and its beginnings, I really do urge you to check out the two sources I used the most to create this post: