Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Constructing and Naturalizing the Middle East

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Constructing and Naturalizing the Middle East

Article excerpt

  I have been writing about it in the Guardian for almost four years
  and I'm fairly sure that I have been there, but I have to confess
  that I don't know for certain where the Middle East is
  --Brian Whitaker, 2004

Defining or locating the "Middle East" is a precarious endeavor. (1) The territory and the characteristics that have been used to delimit and describe this world region have varied immensely over time and space. Even a cursory examination of maps or encyclopedias quickly reveals that the Middle East and the various criteria that have been used to define it are variable and ambiguous. Nevertheless, the region has been naturalized as a real and definable place. Indeed, popular and political discourses on the Middle East are so commonplace that we rarely scrutinize their socially constructed origins and connotations.

Critical examinations of naturalized geographical concepts such as "space," "scale," and "place-specific identities" have sparked vibrant discussions (Hakli 1998; van Schendel 2002, 659), but the world region has received scant attention. Generally defined as groupings of contiguous states that have some cultural, historical, economic, and even physiographic similarity, world regions are a taken-for-granted concept (N. Smith 1992, 64-78; Lewis and Wigen 1997, 13; Harvey 2001, 224). However, world regions are not naturally existing, homogeneous spaces; rather, they are social constructs that are formed and altered in a myriad of discourses (Murphy 1997, 256; Paasi 2001, 13, 16; Hagen 2003). In this essay I analyze the construction and naturalization of the Middle East as a world region. Specifically, I provide a comprehensive and critical examination of the origins, definitions, delineations, and meanings of "Middle East" that have been formative in incorporating this place in our everyday geographies. My goal is to move beyond questions such as "What is the proper designation of the Middle East?" "What is its actual extent?" and "What criteria best determine the region's name and limits?" (Held 2005, 7), in order to show that the Middle East--and world regions more generally--is not a naturally existing place waiting to be defined, labeled, and described but a discursive construct that is enmeshed in a variety of power relationships.


The construction of the Middle East is deeply embedded in Orientalist discourses. In his seminal book Orientalism, Edward Said argued that, since early European explorations, "Westerners" have imagined the "Orient" and its inhabitants as timeless, backward, violent, and inferior (1978, 54-55). These geographical imaginings of the Orient were pivotal in constructing the Other as inherently different from "us." Once established as different and inferior, Western domination of these Other peoples and places was not merely justified but also warranted. Although imaginings of the backward, violent, and inferior Other have been altered slightly since the early nineteenth century, as Douglas Little argued in American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945 (2002), they have survived and are now deeply ingrained in everyday American life. Today, however, the terminology has changed from the "Orient" to the "Middle East."

As we perceive the Orient, so too do we often perceive the Middle East in negative and particularistic contexts, such as terrorism, instability, violence, Islamic fundamentalism, anti-Americanism, oppression of women, or oil wealth (Held 2005, 3-4). Such manufactured and oversimplified geographical imaginings have not only shaped many people's perceptions of the Middle East but also influenced material practices and political decisions (Driver 2005, 149; Haldrup, Koefoed, and Simonsen 2006; Painter 2006, 758). Since 9/11, American prejudices against Middle Easterners, Arabs, and Muslims have increased (Saad 2006), and so have reported incidents of racial/cultural profiling and hate crimes (Elias 2006; Cole 2007; Lockman 2007b; Gardner 2009). …

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