Is There a Middle East? The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept

By Michael E. Bonine; Abbas Amanat et al. | Go to book overview

2 BRITISH AND U.S. USE AND MISUSE OF
THE TERM “MIDDLE EAST”

Roger Adelson

THE TITLE OF THIS CHAPTER puts “Middle East” in quotation marks because the term has been defined in a number of different ways over the past hundred years. Nevertheless, this term, with its imprecise definition and history, continues in use and importance. This essay examines the history of this neologism of fairly recent vintage, and more generally, this discussion seeks to shed light on the ways that political and bureaucratic contexts have determined how the Middle East has been defined since the beginning of the twentieth century. The term “Middle East” particularly gained currency during and after World War II, although more recently this term connotes many negative images associated with oil, Islam, and terrorism. We can trace much of the current American understanding of the Middle East back to the oil and terrorism crises of the 1970s, which were amplified of course by the events of September 2001, when al-Qaida terrorists attacked New York City and Washington, D.C. As terrorism crossed the Atlantic to Madrid, London, and other European cities, the U.S., British, and other governments declared a global war against terrorism and intervened militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq, and subsequently the Middle East has been seen as an even more troubled but most important region.

In the preceding chapter, Huseyin Yilmaz showed how the term “Middle East” evolved into the twentieth century. But why did “the Middle East” gain more currency during and after World War II, when the term was widely adopted by both government officials and the media? And then during the Cold War, North Africa came to be understood as part of the Middle East, whereas in the 1990s government officials and commentators spoke of the Central

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