Posts Tagged ‘Middle East’

What’s ‘the Middle East’? Depends on the style guide or textbook

By Scott Leadingham

You’d be forgiven for admitting confusion upon hearing or reading the term “Middle East.” And lately, that’s an almost impossible term to avoid seeing or hearing in news media.

What started as a backlash against policies in Tunisia has spread across North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and north to Syria. At the moment, the United States finds itself assisting in a United Nations-backed air defense mission in Libya.

With all of this has come near constant news coverage, which has only taken a backseat at times to news of the Japan tsunami and corresponding nuclear issues.

Each country in question is unique, and the circumstances surrounding protests and uprisings differ drastically from one to the next.

But it’s not uncommon to lump all these countries together under one simple descriptor: the Middle East. With U.S. involvement in Libya, news outlets have featured reporters, analysts, pundits and everyone in between wondering if military resources are being stretched. To encapsulate a topic of discussion: The U.S. is, after all, involved in two other Middle East conflicts – in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Therein is the question. Are Afghanistan and Libya (and any number of other countries – Tunisia, too) technically “the Middle East”? Does it matter?

It absolutely matters. Accuracy in news reporting is a fundamental underpinning of credible journalism. For example, if the BBC consistently referred to Mexico as part of South America, they’d be expected to correct this misnomer.

When hearing references to Libya or Afghanistan being in the Middle East, I had flashbacks to my undergraduate geography courses. I seemed to recall that Afghanistan was decidedly not in the Middle East by geographic standards. Aren’t these universally accepted standards in academic disciplines and in journalism?

Actually, I found, they’re not. While Mexico is certainly a part of the North American continent and not a part of South America, it’s not that simple with the Middle East.

The Middle East “is not an exact term,” according to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Depending on the situation and who you ask, “Pakistan or Afghanistan can be either in or out,” Landis wrote in an email.

The Associated Press Stylebook – which, depending on your news outlet, is either the “Bible” or a nice spiritual guide in trying times – is in the “out” camp for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

From the 2010 Stylebook entry on Middle East:

“The term applies to southwest Asia west of Pakistan and Afghanistan (Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the eastern part of Turkey known also as Asia Minor, United Arab Eremites and Yemen), and northeastern Africa (Egypt and Sudan).”

By that standard, Afghanistan is not in the Middle East, and neither are Libya or Tunisia. The latter two would, in theory, be in North Africa. It would help if the Stylebook included a North Africa entry, but it does not.

[Update: 3/30/11 1:09 p.m. ET] New York Times Standards Editor Phil Corbett got back to me after this post was originally published.

The New York Times’ style guide says:

“The Middle East comprises Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and the Persian Gulf emirates.”

That definition includes Libya, but not Afghanistan or Turkey. (Note the differences with AP.)

Corbett wrote in an email that he agrees what constitutes the Middle East is debatable, and “there may occasionally be some contexts in which we would mention other countries in a general ‘Middle East’ connection.”

Note: I inquired of GlobalPost about its definitions of “Middle East,” but haven’t heard back.

Landis of the University of Oklahoma notes that North Africa is part of the Middle East, “according to most traditions.”

But the tradition of Bernard Haykel is less broad. Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and directs its Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

“When I think of the Middle East, I think of lands that include Egypt to the borders of Iraq,” Haykel says. “And Iran, too.”

He says he would correct a student who places Afghanistan in the Middle East, while recognizing there is ambiguity in the description. And, he notes, such regional descriptions are relative. In India, for example, what people in the U.S. and Europe label the Middle East is called West Asia.

Perhaps some of the ambiguity comes from textbooks.

Since I was channeling college geography courses in thinking about this issue, I asked a good source: my undergraduate geography professor.

Elaine Glenn is a senior lecturer at Central Washington University focusing on political geography and the Middle East. She says Afghanistan gets placed in different regions depending on the text you read. One text she uses, “Globalization and Diversity: Geography of a Changing World,” refers to everything from Western Sahara (in northwest Africa) to Iran as “South West Asia and North Africa.” Another text, “World Regional Geography,” calls the same region “the Middle East and North Africa,” and it includes Afghanistan in that description.

“You could technically describe anything from Western Sahara to at least Iran as the Middle East,” Glenn says, but notes that it’s subjective and “each text is different.”

Glenn says she personally tells students that everything from Western Sahara to Afghanistan could be included. But, she qualifies an important point.

“(I) try to help them understand the more subtle connections and linkages in these countries. Generally it is OK to put them all together, but a deeper study of the region reveals the similarities and differences in culture, language and history.”

Good advice. That’s not just a job for geography professors. Aside from striving for accuracy, providing such context and explanation should be a primary mission for all news outlets – regardless of the region from which news disseminates.

Scott Leadingham is editor of Quill magazine. On Twitter: @scottleadingham


Bad news for freedom of expression – Blocking Blackberry

Seems Saudi Arabia and the UAE have learned a lesson from the Iran digital revolution. But it is the wrong lesson.

Rather than look at ways to harness the wishes and desires of their people to make their societies better and make the government more responsive to the needs of the people, these autocratic governments have decided to block instant messaging.

First it was the UAE. And now it is Saudi Arabia.

The blocks are not just on instant messages but also Blackberry e-mail and web access.

It is no surprise that the royal families are concerned. If too many people start to use their smart phones to express their opinions without being tossed in jail, they may start getting other people doing the same. And next thing you know the people will be demanding freedom of assembly, free press and elections.

Now what autocrat would allow such a thing to happen?

Arab League criticizes US resolution on Arab TV

Thanks to Marc Lynch for writing about a meeting of the information ministers of Arab League countries rejecting a Congressional resolution calling for sanctions against Arab satellite television stations that allegedly incite terrorism or promote anti-Americanism.

Arabs reject U.S. crackdown on Arab satellite TV

It would be pretty pathetic that the Arab League — the Arab League!! — is taking a stronger position in favor of media freedoms than the U.S. Congress. But don’t worry — leading Arab states still seem quite keen to find their own Arab ways to repress and control the media.

The Congressional resolution (H.R.2278), which passed 395-3 in December (and hopefully will die in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) is a perfect example of mindless grandstanding which pleases domestic audiences while hurting American interests in the Arab world.

The resolution complains of anti-American incitement on Arab TV, specifically mentioning Hezbollah’s al-Manar, Hamas’s al-Aqsa, and the Iraqi al-Zawra. It calls for the Obama administration to produce a country-by-country list of Arab TV stations which incite violence and to urge official and private sanctions against those deemed to be carrying out such incitement. Who in the U.S. Congress is going to speak out or vote against complaining about al-Manar or al-Aqsa?

I have no great love for most of the Arab media or their tactics. The countries complaining about the U.S. action are hardly bastions of liberal media policies.

That said, it is a sad state of affairs that a brand of the U.S. government should advocate establishing some sort of punishment for news organizations that are just doing their jobs. Reporting the news is not supporting terrorism.

Perhaps instead of lashing out with statements like this, the U.S. Congress might want to think about providing more money for organizations that work to improve the quality of journalism around the world. (Think about the National Endowment for Democracy for one.) It can also provide more money to host more foreign journalists through embassy driven programs. And expanding the Fulbright program wouldn’t hurt.

But words are cheap and serious action takes time, money and thinking.

Other coverage of this issue:

Reporters without Borders — Iran biggest prison for Journalists

The Islamic Republic of Iran has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world — a dubious distinctin for a country already known for its close-minded ways, to say the least.

Reporters without Borders reports that Iran has recovered its status as the world’s biggest prison for the media, with a total of 42 journalists detained. If that wasn’t enough, a group of legislators who support President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presented a bill under which detained government opponents would be regarded as “mohareb” (enemies of God) who should be executed “within a maximum of five days” of their arrest.

See the full Reporters without Borders press release : Iran Biggest Prison for Journalists.

Egyptian Blogger posts about torture and police brutality

Journalist Noha Atef keeps a very unusual blog in Egypt. Atef  blogs about police abuse and torture in Egypt and she posts and tweets so that people will know about it. .

Interpress News Service reports about the work the 25-year-old woman is doing in an article published this week, “Bloggers Name and Shame.”

Atef’s blog, ‘Torture in Egypt’, aims to expose what she considers the brutality of Egypt’s police and security forces.

Read the full article for more.


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