Article explores the grass roots of the Middle East concept, its formation processes, usage and critics. By its part, document supports the idea, that the term “Middle East” is a geopolitical construction, which serves in favor of concrete strategic and economic interests
Right from the start of a new millennium, Near East – as an important part of today’s geopolitical construction, appeared on the front line of battlefield with terrorism. Talk is about USA’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, which was a peculiar answer to 9.11 terrorist attack. Meantime, the military actions took place in Iraq or in other words by classic understanding in Middle East.
The question around the concept is not new and often, it becomes a topic of discussion. Can we discuss Near East, as an idea of a concrete geopolitical structure, which is used by countries in order to perceive their strategic or economic goals? Or is it a term, thus defines geographic, historic, cultural or political template, by which world intelligence “underlines” immigrants from this region? In spite of the fact, that above mentioned term has been in scientific and academic usage for years, while exploring the region, there is no clear conceptualization of the term and its real importance remains blurry, which by its part creates confusion among historians, politicians and researchers, followed by misusage.
It is crucially important to understand, that political, historic and cultural understanding of the term are different. Majority of times, the term is discussed in one perspective, while talking in several dimensions and that is the reason why from a geopolitical point of view, often researchers and politicians from different countries use and define term differently, which sometimes serves for justification of concrete actions, which is reflected in interests of each country.
The roots of the term: – its critique and usage
The term Near East appeared in the papers of British Raj office in 1850s. In 1902 when Alfred Thayer Mahan used it as a mark of the territory between Arabia and India, it became more prominent and widely used. At that time, Great Britain and Russian empires had been fighting over central Asian authority, which in historiography is known as “Big Game”. Mahan realized the strategic meaning of the Persian Gulf territory. As known from history, he marked this area as Near East and developed the idea that if British wanted to interrupt Russian movement towards India, they had to gain control over NearEast. This was first historic evaluation of the region, as a strategically important area.
It has to be mentioned that the word “NEAR” in the word-hoard Near East, time to time was changing within the changes of the geopolitical system. At some point this can be counted as a reason why it remains blurry till now and creates confusion. Before World War I, politicians and scholars were using NEAR EAST to mark the territory of Ottoman Empire and Balkans. At the same time, English phrase MIDDLE EAST was a word-hoard which represented Iran, Caucasus, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Turkmenistan. In 1918, within the collapse of Ottoman Empire, Middle East had become more usable phrase for noting the Muslim world. The first official use of the term appears in 1957, under the Eisenhower Doctrine, which aimed to contribute in settling processes of Suez Crisis. State secretary, John Dulles, under the term defined the territory, which covered area to the west of Libya, East to Pakistan, North to Syria and Iran and south to Arabian Peninsula. Within the decades and changes into the international system the definitions of the term had been changing as well and in majority of the cases, in geopolitics, influencer countries defined the concept justified and linked to their interests; same time, European states, such as France, Germany, Netherlands had been using the concept in their favor and in all the cases definition were different. At the end, researchers, scholars and politicians face the discussion about the region, as the strategically important, but the answer to the questions still remains hidden – what role the concept has for geopolitical structure and what is meant under “Middle East”?
In society, the concept of middle east is seen as problematic, because it is foreseen as western perspective and common understanding of the term is blurry. The prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru suggested the idea that the region should be called “Western Asia”. In the beginning of 21st century, scholars and researchers had tried to support the idea and spread their work in this concrete dimension but the problem lays in the history. The common idea about the concept is pinned in history. 19th century and Cold War period affected the variation of the term in an aggressive manner and in order to settle/spread the new understanding of the concept, it should be fully supported by countries as well in the international system, not just by researchers.
The aspect that should be mentioned while conceptualizing the term is geography. In world, there are countries, of which names comes from the geographical location, but it is not usually analyzed and understood properly. For example, Norway – in geography stands for North, as Austria stands for East. The region of Northern Africa is called “Mahribi” by Arabs, which on Arab language means West. It is understandable, because the region locates to west from Arab speaking countries. This fact explains and supports the idea, that geographical locations in most of the cases determine the name of country and the attention to this fact is very low. Thus, it can be seen as a reason why international society faces the problems with the term “Middle East”. Despite the historical past, Middle East stays as contrive concept and if the international society want to minimize risks of inaccuracy maybe it is even better to call it Western Asia, which is more correct in both perspectives – politically and geographically as well.
What role the term, its concept and the West played in the establishment of the state system in the region and how it can be conceptualized in future?
Establishment of the state system can occur in two different ways, which surprisingly are mutually exclusive. State borders determines the populations, state instruments and defines the identity; or vice-versa. In both ways, European power politics play big role in the region. For example, Ottoman Empire first was formed after “Tanzimat Reforms”, which was widely used in France and Britain, in order to demarcate the borders, which in today’s reality stays untouched. This reform strengthened the idea of nationalism/Islamism, which by its part influenced the regional state system formation process.
Undoubtedly, European politics has contributed to the modeling of the imaginary concept and same time to establishment of the system. The described system, is a coherent set of relationships, which dates back to 1976, meaning that changes into the concept over the time have corrupted the original beliefs and that is why we often encounter uncertainty. Speaking from the geographical perspective, while conceptualizing the system, state becomes the main protagonist of the structure and it is often the state’s fault that the concept of the region, in this case the concept of the Middle East, has become incomprehensible. For example, in our case, the Ottoman Empire first developed a prototype of a system based on their traditions, racial groups, people’s origin in regions and provinces. The real purpose behind the prototype was centralized management; this is to say that when the concept of a nation was new to the region, there would be no border which would allow the state to act freely. The point is that a similar mechanism and prototype still exists in the Middle East, which creates difficulties for definition and supports the idea that concept is invented and no precise conceptualization exists.
International treaties and agreements also play major role in shaping process of concept. For example, presenting the mandate of European forces in the region was an attempt to create a modern state based on the characteristics of the region, followed by forced cohabitation, which basically pictured the war between different social forces in an artificially created state. In many cases, the approaches are incorrect, making it difficult to formulate final concept. This shouldn’t be unilaterally understood. Geopolitics is not the only factor determining the system and in this case, the concept of Middle East. Given Bull’s explanation, the system should and must create interdependence and influence between countries. Thus, it is possible to emphasize the fact, that transnational processes are important in formulating visions and by this, development of a concept becomes possible, which will contribute in analyzing the situation and in making political processes more sound.
The importance of Western forces raised when Ottoman Empire became involved in a capitalist economy, which at one point can be seen as a strive for creating dependence on the Western market. In itself, this was again addressed towards development of European countries. With such action, each country or international organization/institution who stood on the region offered its concept to the public, given that there was no definite vision. All this has resulted in the contrived concept of the region and destabilization of the political processes, which still remains as danger for big powers. The absence of the concept and common vision impedes the management of the political processes, which affect international system in general.
While discussing the term “Middle East” in the historical perspective, at first glance it seems, that it is applicable to all Eastern cultures. The East in this specific case can be seen as an abstract idea, that is used instead of Eastern Geopolitics in the West. The form of perception influences the political and religious aspects, which includes the impact on the structure of thought among researchers, politicians and society in general.
In political terminology, the term “East” is a heritage of European imperialism from 19th century. In this contexts, it is visible, that the competition in the process of territorial division in the dissolution era of the Ottoman Empire is referred as the “Oriental Eastern Question Mark” in the theory of international relations. Therefore, the validity of the “Middle East” concept is still under question. As a term, it has spread through political literature and every interpreter or writer has conveyed the concept of this region from their own perspective. Adding to this, there is no consensus about which geographic area or countries are pinned under the concept. In the modern world, the diversity of the political processes fails to set a common standard for the above mentioned region. Major Geopolitical players identify the concept in terms and according to their interests, which results in unstable cross-border actions in the region. Thus, all this happens because no common vision exists about the region and the concept turns out to be contrive.