Middle East of What? On Identity Politics and Eurocentric Definitions

Middle East of What? On Identity Politics and Eurocentric Definitions

The Middle East. Illustration by Noran Morsi

Most people do not stop to ask why the Middle East has been labelled as such. As a country in the Middle East, people from Egypt have long considered themselves “Middle Eastern”. But what is this region east to, and middle of? And what binds the countries of the Middle East together?

The phrase, which is used by newspapers, airlines, and official entities worldwide, usually includes 17 countries, along with a few that are sometimes left out, such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Egyptian Streets spoke to Hanan Kholoussy, associate professor of history at the American University in Cairo, to find some clarifying information.

Colonial Connections

The earliest record there is of the use of the term “Middle East” is around 1901, says Kholoussy, when American Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan coined the term to refer to this part of the world, in relation to the Far East.

“The two major colonial powers at the time, which were England and France, had valuable colonies in the Far East. The term didn’t really catch on at first. It became more commonly used during World War Two when the British built a Middle East supply center in Egypt where they housed their supplies for the war,” Kholoussy said.

Due to the significant British role in the war while using Egypt as an important base, journalists would mention the “Middle East Supply Center” in their media coverage of the war, popularizing the term Middle East.

Soldiers on Egyptian land in World War 2. Photographer unknown.

Thus, the term refers to the region central east of London and Paris, referring to transcontinental masses of land in relation to their location in relation to two major colonial powers at the time of World War Two.

“The reason the term is problematic for some of us is that we were named by outsiders who were colonizing, controlling, and dominating our region to exploit its resources. And they got to decide what to call us. It refers to a colonial past; a time when we weren’t free and equal to the people who controlled us,” Kholoussy added.

Misconceptions and Media Representation

The Middle East only makes up five percent of the world, but it is a very diverse region, with great ethnic, religious, and geographic variety.

Though the bulk of the population of the Middle East is considered ‘Arab’, the region is far more diverse. There are Berbers in North Africa, concentrated in Morocco and Algeria among other nations, Jews of a wide variety of origins, Kurds in Western Asia mostly concentrated in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, as well as Armenians, Iranians, and Turks.

Though the West also largely associates the region with Islam, religiously, the Middle East is more diverse than that. To start, it is the birthplace of all three Abrahamic faiths, so there are large numbers of Jews and Christians as well as Muslims.

“Twelve percent of the world’s Muslims are from the Middle East, only twelve percent. So, this idea that many Westerners have, and even some Arabs have, that most people in the region are Muslim, because the Arab world has kind of claimed Islam [is false]. It’s the birthplace of Islam, but Arab Muslims only make up 12 percent of the world’s Muslims,” Kholoussy said.

In addition to the three Abrahamic religions, the region is also home to a number of other religious beliefs, such as Zoroastrians and Druze.

There is also often the misconception in Western media that portrays Middle Eastern people as nomads in a desert or extremist Muslim terrorists, as reported by The University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

However, according to a report by The University of Washington, 60 percent of the region’s population lives in major cities such as Damascus, Istanbul, and Cairo, proving that the Middle East is quite urbanized and also has some of the oldest cities in the world.

A perception of the Middle East. Map by Cacahuate via Wikivoyage.

“We have everything from deserts to beaches to snow-capped mountains to olive fields. So the idea that it’s just a barren desert is also false. There are many false stereotypes about the region, the area as a whole, whatever you want to call it, to outsiders. They are always a little shocked when they learn of the geographic diversity of the region,” Kholoussy added.

Identity; To Each Their Own

The term Middle East is not specifically what perpetuates these stereotypes though, she said, and entities in the region have adopted the term and made it their own. Kholoussy believes that the fact that people from the region now use it and have co-opted it makes it less problematic, despite most of them likely being unaware of its colonial history.

“The Egyptian news agency calls itself MENA for Middle East News Agency. The national airline carrier of Lebanon is called Middle East Airlines. There’s a famous newspaper, Al Shark Al Awsat in Saudi Arabia, called the Middle East. We’ve even translated the term into Arabic,” she added.

As for Egyptians, there are further questions of identity being asked. For long, many Egyptians have had a disconnect between themselves and their geographically African identity, as uncovered in a 2012 column for Daily News Egypt by journalist Shahira Amin.

Amin surveyed a number of Egyptians on how they identified, none of whom named their African identity, and most of whom labeled themselves as Muslims or Arabs. What she attributed this to was the idea of the conceptual Sahara divide.

“For centuries, the Sahara Desert has been viewed as a vast impenetrable barrier dividing our continent into two distinct areas: Northern “white” and sub-Saharan “black” Africa. The countries south of the Sahara have long been considered authentically “African” while those to the north have been perceived as Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Islamic,” Amin said.

She added that most anthropologists have refuted the truth of this geographical distribution of the continent that, however, has still influenced how people view the continent and the region, just as the term Middle East does.

The question hangs on what would be a better term to use rather than “Middle East” that encompasses the region without maintaining the colonial connection.

The Arab World. Illustration by Noran Morsi

“The problem is every other term we have is equally problematic,” Kholoussy said.

The term “Arab World” was likely coined by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the father of Arab nationalism, she adds, with the notion of pan-Arabism gaining wider acceptance in the seventies. At that time, Amin explained, concurrently with the Gulf oil boom, millions of Egyptians traveled to oil-rich Gulf nations to work and earn money, where many of the Gulf’s traditions were adopted by Egyptians.

“But the term excludes five key countries in the region – Iran, Turkey, Israel, Armenia and Kurdistan also…so, Arab World is not an inclusive term,” Kholoussy said.

There is also the term MENA which means Middle East North Africa, which is often used to include the countries of North Africa which aren’t always considered as part of the Middle East. The U.S. government refers to the Middle East and North Africa as two separate entities.

“And then when the U.S. government wants to group these two regions together, it calls us MENA, again, coined by an outsider who has interests in the region,” she added.

Therefore, Kholoussy thinks that this is why the ‘Middle East’ has remained so widely used since there has not been a better alternative that is inclusive, any less problematic, or a label created by its own people.

Within Egypt, even, there is a jumble of identities that differ from person to person and region to region. Kholoussy emphasizes, though, that regardless of what labels people cling to, identity is often determined by everyone else’s assumptions and not one’s own.

“Egyptians are a very diverse people. We’ve been occupied and invaded by so many other peoples. So the assortment of identities is astounding, but how we choose to identify ourselves is very much about what’s going on politically in our part of the world at the moment,” Kholoussy said.

Perhaps there is not currently a better term to identify the region accurately, and perhaps it is not the term that matters most. However, what does have impact on cultures and peoples is the misinformation on what the region does include, and the false stereotypes perpetuated by media of what the Middle East is actually defined by.


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Arts & Culture Reporter. Writer and multidisciplinary artist with a passion for podcasting and theatre. Pre-pandemic, can be spotted getting work done from a Cairo coffee shop, train in Delhi or a New York subway. Intra-pandemic, works at a sunny window with lots of iced coffee.

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