Monday, January 25, 2010

Near East Versus Middle East

When one thinks of the "Middle East" the most common issues and places that come to mind probably are Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian violence, and terrorists running wild. Those who study Middle East affairs are thought of as experts on issues like Hezbollah, Islamic militancy, and inter-religious relations. However, some of these experts, like Bernard Lewis, will make statements saying they study Near East affairs. To make matters more confusing Lewis published a book entitled "The Middle East" and the terms Middle East and Near East are tossed around and mixed like a salad.

So is there a difference between Middle East and Near East? The answer is "nes" or "yo" or "kind of" depending on the year of usage.

The term "Middle East" was officially coined by Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1902 though use of the words has been found from writings from 1900 by British General Thomas Gordon and the term probably existed earlier. The Middle East was used to describe Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) to British India (western limit being where Pakistan is). The Near East was the Ottoman realms in Europe (modern Albania, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus with Asia Minor, Syria, Israel, and Jordan).

The various easts (Near, Middle, Far) were made from a European point-of-view (being The West) to divide the various foreign, culturally odd realms from Europe itself. This type of thinking is what led the Greeks to differentiate Europe from the rest of Eurasia.

The Balkan Wars and World War I changed the dynamic of Orientalism (thinking about the easts). Eastern Europe and Ataturk's Turkey were no longer viewed as "foreign" but instead were thought of becoming European. The rump remnants of the Near East were grouped in with the rest of the Middle East. Today those those two terms have been mixed together with no real difference in the use of the term.

8 comments:

chirol said...

Twas I, Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol that actually coined the term Middle East in my book 'The Middle Eastern Question'

Trevor Huxham said...

Very interesting linguistic study here. While reading Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, I noticed that he referred to the region in question as "Southwest Asia"—an unfamiliar yet neutral term to describe what most people refer to as the Middle East. Of course, this would not include any nations in North Africa as "Middle East" does. Nevertheless, "Southwest Asia" seems a more neutral alternative, especially since it's not based on an "us vs. them" demarcation of the world.

On another note, where exactly is the dividing line between the West and the East? It can't be very straight, since Spain borders Morocco to the south, and Russia looms over Europe to the northeast.

Catholicgauze said...

Chirol,
It seems your namesake's own book praises Mahan.

Trevor,
Very true. That will be an upcoming blog feature. As for East versus West, some people like to think in terms of Global North and Global South. However, the southern most countries like Argentina and Australia are more "Global North" than southern countries like Congo, Vietnam, etc.

data diplomacy said...

Seems bureaucrats and social scientists always make such a hash when confronted by geography. So near, middle and far east have been replaced by relevant SW, South, Central, SE and North(NE) Asia. these seem to be relevent in terms of key actors and relationships amongst them.

if you quote Mahan don't leave out Mackinder's heartland. There was also the cold war "Northern tier" for the countries on the southern flank of the USSR/Warsaw Pact (Turkey,Iraq, Iran, Pakistan) united under the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). Why northern probably had something to do with the geopolitics of containment or maybe cold high deserts and mountains, go figure...

I always loved the sociological core/periphery, 1st/2nd and 3rd worlds, north /south and south/south relationships. Users of the terms seem to think they refer to actual geography versus being a neat theoretical construct. Is it wrong to say that these are all attempts to restate basic geography about spatial and temporal distribution and proximity (however you define that) is a mutable term in space time and technology?

Leszek said...

It's probably a wee bit late, but the Middle East/Near East is not present in every language. In Polish, Near East is the same area, but Middle East is more like Iran + stans.
It is so, you just tend to forget that area.

Catholicgauze said...

Leszek,
It is never too late to comment. Very insightful input, looks like the original meanings stayed the same in Polish unlike in English.

Français said...

In french we have three "distinct" EAST:
Near East: Proche Orient
Middle East: Moyen Orient
Far East: extreme Orient

Very confusing!

Catholicgauze said...

Français,
Very interesting. Thank you!