Friday, September 02, 2005

Defining the Middle East

A lot of the positions I have applied for in academia are forjobs in the history of the Middle East. Due to recent events it is a hot topic and has a number of new openings each year. In contrast the number of new slots dealing with Russia has dwindled down to almost nothing. It is no longer considered a threat and hence there is no money allocated to study it. Once federal money to study countries deemed a threat to US interests dries up American universities quickly lose interest in researching the history those countries. My interests lay outside the Russian areas of the USSR. I am primarily interested in the Muslim areas of the former Soviet Union, particularly Kazakhstan and Central Asia.

According to the Library of Congress, Kazakhstan, Central Asia and the Caucasus are part of the Middle East. Given the authority of this source this should be enough. But, I will also note that the prestigious Middle East Institute in Washington DC also includes these regions as part of the Middle East. They after all have two of the most important criteria for being Middle Eastern, a predominantly Muslim population and oil.

Central Asia, Kazakhstan and the Caucasus certainly fit better into the Middle East than they do into Europe or Asia. This last term in the US almost always refer to the core countries of East Asia. That is China, Japan and Korea. Sometimes it will encompass some South East Asian countries such as Vietnam as well. It rarely refers to the Indian subcontinent and almost never to Central Asia. In the US for some reason the terms Orient and Asia are considered to be alternate spellings of China. In the UK in contrast Asia means South Asia. That is India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Oriental in Great Britian generally refers to the Middle East, particularly the Arab world. The problem of Americacentric terms that contradict the official US geographical definitions given by the Library of Congress is a real one.

It has occurred to me that alot of American Universities like alot of Americans have no conceptual space for Central Asia and the Caucasus except for their former membership in the USSR. Thinking of these regions as post-Soviet makes a certain amount of sense, but it also makes sense to think of Indochina, Algeria and West Africa as former French colonial space. These are not geographical divisions. If one is going to be consistent then America should be catagorized as part of the former British Empire.

The broad definition of the Middle East used by the Library of Congress and Middle East Institute is often replaced by narrower more parochial borders. Alot of these make no sense. The classic American grouping of Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and the Arabian penninsula as being the whole of the Middle East is particularly irrational. Why are only parts of the Arab, Turkic and Iranian worlds included? Surely, even taking into account the Berbers and other minorities, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya are just as Arab as Iraq with its large Kurdish minority or Egypt with its many Copts. It gets even stranger in the northern tier. Both Turkey and Iran are considered part of the Middle East, but Azerbaijan is not. Azerbaijani is linguistically close enough to Anatolian Turkish that they can easily communicate with each other and half of the world's Azerbaijanis live in Iran. But, because Azerbaijan was briefly under Tsarist then Soviet rule it is not included as part of the Middle East. Angola was under Portuguese rule for much longer than Azerbaijan was under Russian and Soviet rule. That does not, however, remove Angola from Africa. If one is going to define the Middle East it should be done on a cultural basis. That would include all those countries of Arab, Turkic and Iranian heritage. This area stretches from Mauritania in the west, Sudan in the south, Kazakhstan in the north and Eastern Turkestan in the east. The Library of Congress and Middle East Institute use this definition. Everybody else should get with the program.


Camicao said...

Thank you for this post. It was very informative and persuasive.

Nathan said...

There's something to be said for having different sorts of groupings depending on what's under discussion.

What I find peculiar about your definition is that it would arguably include Indonesia (Muslim and until recently a net exporter of oil) and the likes of Tatarstan and Sakha (if being Turkic is sufficient). At the same time, I suppose it would exclude Israel, Armenia, and Georgia.

"Middle East" is a troublingly fluid concept, but I tend to think of it as being primarily geographic and secondarily culture. Not that the general public necessarily picks up on it, but there is quite a bit of cultural variety within the region.

As far as Central Asia goes, I certainly think it is sufficiently unique in terms of culture, history, language, and geography to be treated as distinct from the Middle East and North Africa. Personally, I think that the University of Indiana's definition is the right one even if they seem to be the only institution that uses it.

Here at UWash, Central Asia gets both treatments. In my program at the International Studies school, it's lumped in with the former USSR. It's also part of the Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations program. And I certainly think that both make a ton of sense depending on what your interest is. The area was so fundamentally transformed by the Soviets (certainly moreso than Indochina by the French) that studying its modern politics or economics is better done alongside than the larger post-Soviet experience than alongside a study of Iraq or Egypt. If I was interested in the religious history of the region, I'd certainly be less interested in Russia.

Nathan @

J. Otto Pohl said...

The predominantly Muslim and having oil was not part of my definition. It was a slight dig at the Middle East Institute which is heavily sponsored by oil companies. I guess I did not make it real clear. The MEI does include Georgia, Israel and Armenia as being part of the Middle East as does the LOC.

There are two reasons I prefer to have Central Asia in the Middle East rather than elsewhere. First, that is where all the funding money is going. Despite the US presence in Afghanistan and air base in Kyrgyzstan very little is going to study Central Asia and few places have programs devoted to it.

Second is purely ideological. Alot of Russian/Soviet/Post-Soviet studies are dominated by people that are to say the least unable to properly criticize the USSR. The presence of people soft on Stalin like G. Arch Getty, Robert Thurston, Stephen Wheatcroft and Mark Tauger is a huge problem in Soviet history. This is not true in Near and Middle East Departments. They have no problem noting things like racism, colonialism and ethnic cleansing in Soviet practice. My own degrees were in the Near and Middle Eastern sectin of the history department of SOAS for instance.

Disillusioned kid said...

I have come across cases where Central Asia has been described as part of the "Greater Middle East" (see e.g. this article from Al Jazeera). This seems to be an even more fluid concept than the Middle East and I'm not entirely convinced that it aids understanding, but it is a possible response to the confusion.

J. Otto Pohl said...

The reason for putting Central Asia in the Greater Middle East is that it is a form of ideological decolonization. There is too much pro-Soviet baggage in US Russian/Soviet/post-Soviet studies. The UK is better, but there are still people like S. Wheatcroft who work hard to minimize Stalin's crimes. It would be as if all studies of Indochina and Algeria were done through the French Department. A French Department that glorified the benefits of French colonialism. Putting Central Asia in the Greater Middle East gets away from the Cold War Legacy of US Soviet studies being dominated by revisionists.

Nathan said...

I certainly see where you're coming from. In an ideal world, I'd certainly prefer the University of Indiana definition. I can kind of understand Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as part of the Greater Middle East, but once Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are in, I wonder why not keep going into Russia.

-Nathan @

J. Otto Pohl said...

Nathan, you are certainly right that the demographic and geographic borders are problematic. I have a post from not too long ago on the problematic placement of Kazakhstan between Europe and Asia both geographically and demographically.

However, you must be aware that money to study Russia has been very seriously reduced. The Kennan Center Report on this issue makes it clear just how little funding for Russian studies remains. In contrast there has been money from the US government to study the Greater Middle East. As a practical matter of getting a job it is much better to promote myself as an Orientalist rather than a Eurasianist. That way I have a couple of dozen jobs versus maybe a half a dozen to apply to each year.

DEftink said...

Until the countries of Central Asia like Kyrgyzstan do something that forces others to take notice, they will be connected to their former Soviet status. This may take a century because perception changes slowly for the unaware. Not many realize that only 9% (if I remember correctly) of the population of Kyrgyzstan is ethnic Russian. They just understand they were Soviet until recently.

If the US didn't expand past the original 13 colonies, it may very well be identified as "the former British colony". It probably was, until the US started to take a larger role in the global community.

People searching for jobs I think are coming up against these perceptions. The perceptions of companies or organizations searching for experts in the Middle East really mean experts in the current world "hot spots". Maybe purely scholastic endeavors would understand you and others qualifications properly. Outside the scholastic, you deal with business who only cares to make money on current trends.
Good luck and jakshy kalynyz

J. Otto Pohl said...

I think Kyrgyzstan is about 13-14% ethnically Russian. But, they are concentrated mostly in Bishkek. At any rate I think there should be a ban on the use of the term post in academic discourse. Post-Soviet is annoying and what is the next term then Post-Post-Soviet?