Sunday, January 9, 2011

Middle East?

The notion of the regional nomenclature of the term “Middle East” is somehow complicated when it applies as an area study or as a region itself. Even its origin of naming the region Middle East is a contestable issue. Who named it and in what purpose(s) does s/he have? What countries constitute Middle East or the Broader/Greater Middle East? Is there really a middle east in geographical sense? How does it differ from Near or Far East? Or is it geographically and politically correct to say, West Asia instead of Middle East? And what comprises the nature or characteristics of the area study of Middle East? 
     Whether how it was used or utilized by ordinary persons, scholars, or institutions remains a singular question that needs an answer for simple comprehension, i.e. how are we going to reach a common understanding about the term ‘Middle East’? However, it is difficult to dissect the intricacies of the term Middle East to reach a common understanding by those who contextually used it. The proponent asks one question related to this topic at, his query was “why West Asia is called "Middle/Near East" same as other parts of Asia labeled as "Far East?" Why there is no Far, Middle or Near West?" 
     He thought and structured this question when most, if not all, scholars in Asia refers to the region West Asia and even termed their affiliated departments as West Asia, e.g. Philippines has Asian Center of the University of the Philippines which offers MA in Asian Studies with concentration on West Asia and in Jawaharlal Nehru University of India, the School of International Studies also offers M.Phil/Ph.D in West Asian and North African Studies and they even have Centre of West Asian Studies. In addition, Lionel Te-Chen Chiou, a sociology graduate student at Flinders University of South Australia opined that “in Chinese newspapers, you often see the term "Western Asia," particularly in news coverage of football (soccer) matches and often see journalists from Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong use Western Asia.” 
     On the other hand, most scholars from Europe and America refer the region as Middle/Near East and use Middle/Near Eastern Studies or Oriental Studies in the affixation of their departments and degree programs. What is the geographical point of reference by Asian and European/American scholars when they refer to the region as West Asia and Middle East, respectively? Are there any differences and/or similarities in their ideological construction, underpinning meanings and supporting descriptions? How did the Orientalist construct this thought?
     The proponent received overwhelming and thought-provoking answers from his colleagues. James Jumper, a graduate student at Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University, declared that “his field is a Euro-centric and terms like ‘near’ or ‘far’ has semi-cultural designation, that is they differentiate that China is decidedly different from Egypt, though the former is closer (in Europe's eyes) to Japan.” Further, he stated that in contrast with the Orientalist perspective of terming Asian regions as Middle/Near/Far East which was motivated by classifying it as geographical-cultural groups, Westerners see themselves as more historically-culturally continuous.
     Waleed Mahdi of the University of Minnesota argued that the UN official designation is West Asia but problem arises when scholars think of the Greater Middle East because the term West Asia strategically excludes North African countries like Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. He noted that an American geo-strategist Alfred Mahan popularized the term “Middle East” and to his understanding, the English have used the term Near East to refer to the Ottoman Empire and Middle East to refer to Persia.
     Ömür Harmanşah, a faculty member at Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World of Brown University, provided a detailed answer though he thought that the question does not have a very straightforward answer. He said that it has something to do with the British colonialism in late 19th early 20th centuries, which greatly affected the geopolitics of imperialism in the Middle East. According to him, “In the social sciences today scholars who study medieval and modern periods use "Middle East" while those who study ancient Mesopotamia prefer ‘Near East’. Western Asia has been introduced as a geographical term that is relatively politically correct.” 
     He goes on by giving relevant articles to help find answers to the posited question. The following was his contribution:
Scheffler, Thomas; 2003. " 'Fertile crescent', 'Orient', 'Middle East': the changing mental maps of Souhwest Asia," European Review of History 10/2: 253-272.
"the invention of the ‘Middle East’ was not rooted in historical considerations but corresponded to the strategic needs of Western geopolitics. Backed by military power, institutions, and economic incentives, the concept became, however, a reality imposed upon and sometimes accepted by the region’s political actors." (253)
     "In an article on ‘The Persian Gulf and International Relations’, published in 1902, the American navy captain Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914), author of a much acclaimed study on The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890), argued that the Russian advances in Central Asia and the projected German Berlin–Baghdad railway, might put Britain’s control of the maritime communication lines between Suez and India in jeopardy. Britain, Mahan argued, would be well advised to secure its control of the Persian Gulf region, a vaguely defined area he referred to as the Middle East: ‘The Middle East, if I may adopt a term which I have not seen, will someday need its Malta, as well as its Gibraltar…. The British Navy should have the facility to concentrate in force, if occasion arise, about Aden, India, and the Gulf.’56. Mahan’s term was almost immediately taken up and popularised" (264). 
     Consequently, what is your take on the notion of the term “Middle East”? How do you perceive or think the naming of Middle East as an area study and/or as a region?

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