The term Middle East refers to the region at the crossroads of North Africa, southwest Asia, and southeastern Europe, but political science scholars and practitioners do not always agree on the definition. Nineteenth-century British strategists coined the term during the heyday of the British Empire to refer to the territories between India and what is now Turkey. Both middle and east are relational categories that depend on what is the center or viewpoint. The phrase, now used by people from the Middle East, refers to the region from Morocco to Iran (on a west-east line) and from Turkey to Yemen (on a north south line). Some people exclude North Africa (Maghrib in Arabic) or prefer the acronym MENA for Middle East and North Africa. The Middle East is larger than the “Near East” (the Levant, or Mashriq in Arabic) and sometimes includes the Muslim-majority countries of Central Asia as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Characterized for a long time as the place where “Arabs,” or those who speak Arabic, were concentrated, the term has been increasingly linked to a place where Muslims are concentrated, although this characterization is not accurate, because most Muslims live outside of the Middle East, notably in Indonesia, India, and sub-Saharan Africa, and because not only Muslims live in the Middle East.
Since the Middle East witnessed the emergence of the three revealed monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the so-called Abrahamic faiths), it might be read in religious terms. En vogue theories such as that in Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations have further contributed to considering Middle Eastern politics in civilizational terms, whereby “the West” and Islam are fundamentally opposed. But it is incorrect to oppose a loose geographical concept, the West, to a faith, Islam. Instead, one should distinguish Islam, the faith, from Islamdom (a term historian Marshall Hodgson coined in analogy with Christendom)—the regions where Islam is the main religion.
It is also imperative to historicize Middle Eastern politics to avoid generalizations and essentialization (the reduction of various aspects of a given group into a very few characteristics that gradually become the kernel of their “essence”), which Edward Said critiqued in his 1978 classic Orientalism. Said distinguishes between studying “the Orient” and a style of thought that separates “the Orient” and “the Occident.” In an “orientalist” reading, the Orient, or the Middle East, becomes the negative mirror of the Occident, or the West, and vice versa. No Orient exists, even geographically, if not as a reflection of the Occident. Many authors, sometimes unwillingly, fall into the trap of ethnocentrism by assuming that what is the case in the West either ought to be so in the Middle East, or is lacking there because of so-called oriental characteristics, ideas, and norms. A neoorientalism that is a reactualization of older orientalist biases has put emphasis on the dead end of democratization in the region as well as on Islam as a total ideology—the political role that Islam is seen to play throughout the Middle East—and generalizes about the nature of Middle Eastern society to explain violence and political instability.
Population and Diversity
Characterizing the Middle East according to geography is difficult, because landscapes, access to oil and hydrocarbons, and even rainfall vary tremendously across the region. Sparsely populated areas exist next to huge urban concentrations, such as Cairo, Tehran, and Istanbul, each host to more than twelve million people. Processes of modernization, urbanization, and massive production of oil led to profound reshaping of the social fabrics of Middle Easter n societies and a staggering contrast between high-tech service-providing centers and agricultural zones.
Contrary to neo-orientalist representations of the Middle East, its population is extremely diverse, not only between countries but also within each country, influencing local and regional politics. The diversity can be expressed in the following terms:
- Religious terms. Although Islam is the main religion in the region, the Middle East has historically been home to Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Baha’i minorities. Even within Islam, there exist many subgroupings within the Sunni and Shiite branches. The former branch is further subdivided into four different schools of jurisprudence, with more or less strict interpretation of religious texts, ranging from the puritan Hanbali (known at times as Wahhabism), to the Malaki, Shafeite, and more liberal Hanafi legal interpretations. There are also different orders of Sufism, a form of mysticism practiced in pyramidal units called tariqas. The Shiite current is divided among Twelver Shiites (mostly represented in Iran and Iraq), Sevener Shiites (Ismailis), and Fivers, or Zaydis. Other Muslim splinter groups include the Druze of Lebanon, Syria, and modern Israel;Alevis of Turkey;Alawites of Syria, and Ibadis of present-day Oman. Some of these sectarian divisions have provided fluctuating and alternative social and political hierarchies. The divisions between the two main Kurdish factions active in Northern Iraq result from a long-term division between two historically contending Sufi orders, the Naqshbandi and the Qadiri. Similarly, much of the turmoil in Lebanon in the last five decades has resulted from sectarian strife and shifting political alliances among seventeen different communities that are legally recognized by the state. Of the non-Muslim communities, apart from the Jews of Israel, the Christian minorities are the most important, including the Copts of Egypt (about 5 percent of the total population), Maronites and Orthodox communities in Lebanon, and small Christian minorities in Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey.
- Linguistic differences. Semitic languages predominate. Arabic is the dominant language in the Maghreb (North Africa) and in the Mashriq (Levant), but there are significant non-Semitic linguistic minorities, most prominently Berber speakers (Tamazight) in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia and Kurdish-speaking minorities in Iraq and Syria. Hebrew, the other Semitic language, is used only in Israel, where Arabic is also a national language. Outside of the Arab Middle East, Indo-Iranian languages are predominant in Iran (Farsi or Persian, Baluchi, Luri, etc.), in Kurdish regions (Kurdish dialects), and in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Dari, Pashtu, Urdu, etc.). Turco-Mongol languages are represented by Turkish in Turkey and by Azeri, Turkmen, and other languages in Central Asia.
- Ethnic terms. Often, ethnic distinction is premised on or reinforced by linguistic differences (Baluchi as opposed to Persians, Armenians or Kurds as opposed to Arabs or Turks, etc.). There also exist groups who are no longer distinguishable by language but are distinguishable by geographical or ethnic origins: Circassians in Jordan, Tadjiks and Hazaras in Afghanistan, and Arabized Kurds. Ethnicity also plays an important role in the internal dynamics of Israeli Jewish society.
- Putative kinship. A final source of intrasocietal differentiation is provided by putative kinship, namely, in-group feelings based on common genealogy or clan structures. This type of identity derives from more or less real genealogy or from the reinvention of a common historical origin. In the first case, tribal groups descending from a common ancestor constantly recreate internal divisions vis-à-vis external groups, while other groups claim direct descent from the Prophet— for example, the Sayyed in the Shiite world, or from other important religious figures, in the case of Sufi leaders. In the second case, Maronites and other Christian Lebanese claim thus to be “Phoenicians,” not Arabs (a term associated in such reconstruction with Muslims, albeit in a problematic manner). Anthropologists have shown the malleability of putative kinship and have confirmed that certain groups have changed identities, be they from one tribal affiliation to another, Sunni to Shiite, or Christian to Muslim. According to the circumstances, tribalism or adhesion to a Sufi tariqa can also be a means of upward social mobility, as much as it can entrap individuals into them. Therefore, one should take these affiliations into consideration when studying local politics but should not allow them to explain everything in Middle Eastern societies.
To refer to the diversity of the Middle East, many have used the metaphor of the mosaic, whereby religions play an important aggregating and stabilizing role. But this has been criticized for being too static a vision and for reifying modes of social differentiation. For example, it has become commonplace to refer to the Iraqi divide along sectarian or ethnic lines, as Shiite versus Sunni or Arab versus Kurd, but this hides multilayered and negotiable identities, such as mixed marriages and the strength of Iraqi nationalism, which cuts across sectarian identities. Political entrepreneurs, in Yemen and Iraq, for example, have taken advantage of ethnic, religious, tribal, and other forms of identity to maintain or challenge authority.
Trends in Modern Politics
In order to avoid neoorientalist distortions, Middle Eastern politics must be understood in a historical light. In the late modern period, most of the region was in the hands of the Ottoman or Qajar empires, which the European powers fought bitterly to destroy and eventually managed to include in their colonial dominions, beg inning with Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798 and ending in the first half of the twentieth century. Great Britain and France were the most successful colonial powers, while Russia, Germany, and Italy had only temporary influence. All countries of the region, except Turkey and Iran, have experienced colonial rule. This translated first and foremost into the creation of artificial states modeled on the European nation-state.
Europeans tried to buttress national cohesion very often by playing minorities against one another. France created republics in Lebanon and Syria, and Britain favored the emergence of monarchies in Egypt, Transjordan, and Iraq. In all cases, colonial powers imposed secularized regimes, a feature that has remained reality in all Middle Eastern states, with the exception of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The colonial legacy in the Middle East can be seen on any map of the region: Straight-line borders were drawn with little consideration for local populations, and drastic changes in the ethnic make-up of these new countries have generated numerous internal conflicts, including those between Palestinians and Israelis and the civil war in Lebanon. Indeed, these two hotspots are the legacy of colonial decisions: The support given by the British Crown to the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in 1917, the Balfour Declaration, paved the way to the creation in 1948 of a Jewish state at the heart of a region inhabited by an overwhelmingly Arab majority, while the redrawing of Great Lebanon’s borders in 1920 was pushed forward by the French mandatory power so as to tip the internal demographic balance in favor of the Christian Maronites.
In many Middle Eastern countries (as in many third world countries), once the euphoria of independence was over, the regimes focused on modernizing ideologies with nationalist overtones, and the military often played an important role. Socialism proved very popular from the 1950s to the 1970s, and regional ideologies, such as Pan-Arabism, made popular by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser or by the influential Baath party in Syria and Iraq, never managed to change the map of the Middle East. Instead, rhetoric and import-substituting industrialization policies paved the way to increased intrastate tensions, which in turn reinforced the role of the military in Middle Eastern politics.
Overall, modernizing ideologies failed to deliver dividends to the masses, and popular discontent grew and was augmented, from the 1970s onward, by economic crises and important military defeats to Israel. In most Middle Eastern states, the main contenders for power come from Islamic militant organizations. Islamism, a political ideology that includes nationalist and socialist elements and fashions politics according to strong religious precepts, has been the most successful dogma in the last thirty years, because it comprises two interlinked levels of criticism. On the one hand, it wields domestic power through its effective alternative network of welfare (a feature on which ruling regimes have been weak in delivering). On the other, it manages to tap into locally accepted collective symbols that are in clear contraposition with Western principles that appear to guide the action of ruling elites.
Democracy has been on top of the research agenda since the late 1980s. Some scholars have argued, often in a problematic essentialist mode, that Muslim and Arab cultures are inherently resilient to liberal values central to the spread of a democratic ethos, while others have argued that there are reasons linked to blocked political economies that have favored autocracy over democracy. Far from being the only game in town, democracy has had a difficult time establishing itself in the Middle East. (Turkey and Israel are the exceptions.) Economic liberalization still has to pave effectively the way to political liberalization.
Instead, authoritarianism has proved very resilient, especially in the Arab world, and scholars have explored the strategies of enduring regimes in the region. Recent Western campaigns and justifications for exporting democracy through just and preemptive wars have awakened old colonial demons in much of the region’s collective imaginary. Democratization has proved difficult because of the deadlock over the control of resources and the role of the state’s institutions in this process. Political actors, Islamists included, have fought more to control the state than to enhance mechanisms of accountability and good governance. The study of contemporary Middle Eastern politics has to take into account how the struggle for the state has been central in generating fluctuating alliances, has led to a spiraling of conflicts, and has impeded the establishment of a sound system of representation based on the notion of tax extraction. Scholars have thus produced seminal work on Middle Eastern rentier states and the mixed blessings of large oil revenues on political participation and enfranchisement.
Trying to understand popular protest and Islamic factions in terms of social movements has shed new light on many political formations that have been dichotomously defined along, for example, modernist-fundamentalist lines. It also allows students of the Middle East to capture less visible social transformations, or changes that are not directly related to the “high” features of politics (state, democracy, political economy). Looking at claims made by low-level organizations or lay people has produced recent valuable studies on social movements and bears witness to the broader impact of globalization and regionalization of politics. Similarly, so-called Islamic feminism, with which Muslim women fight patriarchal control by reappropriating religious texts from within, is another form of informal protest that sheds a different light on constantly evolving societies, away from neoorientalist discourses about a homogenous society resilient to democratic principles.
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