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Common Misconceptions about the Middle East and Middle Eastern Culture

Updated on January 2, 2017

The Middle East is one of the most politically and culturally important areas in the world right now, but media coverage often leads people to have incorrect ideas and stereotypes about it. I've written this hub in order to attempt to dispel some of the most common false beliefs about the people who live in the area known as the Middle East. The simple facts listed below may seem obvious to you, but you'd be surprised at how many people get them wrong!

First things first: Defining the "Middle East"

The term "Middle East" is often applied to varying countries and regions. Traditionally, it just means countries in the area of Egypt, Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula, and Iran. The greater Middle East ties countries together based on cultural, religious, linguistic, or political ties, and covers parts of North Africa, all the way to Central Asia. Look at the maps below for reference.

The greater Middle East.
The greater Middle East.
The traditional Middle East
The traditional Middle East
Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Orthodox Christians' Pope.
Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Orthodox Christians' Pope.
The Faravahar, symbolic of Zoroastrianism.
The Faravahar, symbolic of Zoroastrianism.
Coptic Cross
Coptic Cross
Druze woman, Lebanon, c. 1870
Druze woman, Lebanon, c. 1870

Myth #1: All Middle Easterners are Muslim

Due to modern news coverage of the region, it is easy to get duped into believing that the Middle East is only home to Muslims. While it is true that Muhammad and the Umayyad Caliphate spread Islam to many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, other religions are still widely practiced in the region, and many of them, such as Christianity and Judaism, originated there.

Other than the large Abrahamic religions, there are minorities such as the Baha'i, Zoroastrians, the Druze, and many more. There are also still many tribes that practice ancient belief systems, some of which have been heavily influenced by Islam.

Contrary to popular belief, the largest Muslim population is actually in Indonesia, not a Middle Eastern country. There are also large groups of Muslims in the United States (many by adopting the religion, not by immigration), Europe, and all across Asia and Africa.

Photographs (from top down):

Pope Shenouda III (Above, right): the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Here he is pictured listening to a speech by President Obama in Cairo. The Coptic Christians represent the largest Christian group in Egypt and the Middle East, accounting for 10% of the Egyptian population.

Faravahar (above, right): This is one of the best known symbols of the Zoroastrian religion, and is believed to depict a protective spirit. Zoroastrianism is a religion and philosophy that was founded in ancient Persia, and was formerly one of the world's largest religions. It is now estimated that there are between 145,000 and 210,000 adherents in the world, on all continents.

Coptic Cross (Right): This Coptic Orthodox cross reads Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Copts are divided into catholics and protestants.

Druze Woman (Right): This fascinating photograph was taken by a French photographer in Lebanon. The woman is shown dressed formally in headgear that was popular with Druze women of the time. The Druze are monotheists and are mostly found in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. There are over 1 million Druze worldwide, most of which reside in the Middle East.

Western Wall (Below): This is a remnant of an old wall that surrounded a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. It is one of the most sacred sites in Jerusalem, and has been a place of Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries. The Jews in the Middle East are mostly concentrated in Israel, but small populations also live in Iran and Turkey. The largest Jewish population outside of Israel is in the United States.


Western Wall, Jerusalem
Western Wall, Jerusalem
"Farsi"
"Farsi"
"Arabic"
"Arabic"

Myth #2: All Middle Easterners Speak Arabic

Arabic is the most widely spoken language in the Middle East, but the other two most common ones are Persian (Farsi) and Turkish. There are also dozens more languages spoken in the region, including Hebrew, Armenian, Beber, Kurdish, and more. Recently, Urdu has become widely spoken because of immigration from Pakistan and India. English and French are commonly spoken as a second language, usually by educated, upper-class people.

Because there is so much linguistic variety, bilingualism is a common trait among Middle Easterners.

A common misconception is that all Muslims speak Arabic, which is far from the truth. However, the Koran is usually written in Arabic, so many Muslims have at least some knowledge of the language.

Myth # 3: All Middle Easterners Are Arabs

This is among the most pervasive beliefs that Westerners hold about the Middle East. In fact, calling an Iranian or Turkish person an Arab can be taken as an insult.

The term "Arab" actually predates Islam, and is an identity that has nothing to do with religion. While most Arabs are Muslims, there are also Arab Christians, Arab Jews, and Arabs of smaller religions. Non-Arab muslims would include many Iranian and Turkish people, who do not form part of the Arab world, but rather, the Muslim world.

Usually, someone defines her or himself as Arab because a) Arabic is his/her first language, or b) That person descended from the tribes of Arabia.

So, the term "Arab" is actually a linguistic grouping, not ethnic or religious.

Myth #4: Middle Easterners Have Black Hair, Black Eyes, and Olive Skin

The Middle East is located in the middle of, and forms part of, THREE CONTINENTS: Africa, Asia, and Europe. It is the place where so much travel, immigration, and trade took place. For this reason, Middle Easterners are biologically very diverse. It is a stereotype that they all have olive-toned skin, black eyes, and black hair, but in fact, many have very light skin, brown or blonde hair, and blue or green eyes. Some Middle Easterners have a more stereotypically "African" appearance, with dark skin and Afro hair, and some have almond-shaped eyes, appearing to be more stereotypically "Asian" looking than anything else.

They also differ widely in how they dress. Below, I have included photographs to show some of the cultural and ethnic diversity of the Middle East.

Kurdish children, Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kurdish children, Iraqi Kurdistan.

Here are Kurdish children happily playing with a puppy in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds are a native Middle Eastern group that inhabits a region known as Kurdistan, which is separated among Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. They speak their own language (Kurdish), and there is a strong nationalist movement among them, pushing for their own country. As ethnic minorities, they have been subject to much prejudice, most notably the Kurdish genocide committed by Saddam Hussein. You can see that these particular Kurdish children have light skin, and a few have green eyes and blonde hair.

Ghulam Khamis, football player from Oman
Ghulam Khamis, football player from Oman

Ghulam Khamis is one of Oman's favorite sons- he was a football player in the 1980s. Oman is generally known for its stability (though it is a monarchy, and there was some unrest during the Arab Spring). It is an Arab country, but Khamis' looks do not fit the Arab stereotype.

Egyptian farmer, fellah
Egyptian farmer, fellah

The man pictured here is a rural Egyptian farmer. 60% of Egyptians are fellahin, or farmers along the Nile river. Egypt is an Arab country, and it is also Mediterranean, and North African.

Berber girl, Morocco
Berber girl, Morocco

This girl is a Berber from Morocco. The Berbers are indigenous people of Northern Africa, and are distributed from the Atlantic ocean to Egypt. They usually speak their own Berber languages, along with Arabic (because of the spread of Islam), and some French and Spanish (due to colonization). Berbers are by no means homogenous, and can have a range of physical appearances and cultures. They are united by their languages and general identity as North African tribes.

Bedouin, Jordan
Bedouin, Jordan

This man is a Bedouin from Jordan. The Bedouin are an Arab ethnic group that are generally nomadic and live in the desert, traditionally raising camels. Recently, more and more Bedouins have settled in towns and cities and began raising sheep. The term is sometimes used for nomads in general, regardless of whether they are Arabs or not. They traditionally live in clans, or tribal groups. Most adhere to Sunni Islam.

Turkmen Children in Afghanistan
Turkmen Children in Afghanistan

These are two Turkmen children in Afganistan. The Turkmen people live in Turkmenistan, Afganistan, and Iran. They have their own language and are traditionally nomadic. They are believed to have descended from tribes that migrated from Western China.

Armenian Children
Armenian Children

These are Armenian children, part of an ethnic group that largely lives in Armenia. Due to the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman empire, there are also large amounts of Armenians in Russia, the United States, Iran, and other countries. The Armenians speak an ancient language and they were the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion.

Amos Oz, Israeli writer
Amos Oz, Israeli writer

This is Amos Oz, an Israeli writer. Oz was born in Jerusalem to immigrant parents from Eastern Europe. Israel is a Jewish state, but it has a multi-ethnic society, with people of European, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and North African descent.

Man from Somalia
Man from Somalia

This man is from Somalia and is wearing a traditional taqiyah hat. The Somalis live in the Horn of Africa, and speak their own language. They are almost entirely Sunni Muslims. They have a strong clan culture, and clan ties play a major part in identity.

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    • profile image

      Annie 5 months ago

      Great article! Very well written.....however Pakistan has been shown on the world map as "part of" the middle east but in reality its located in South East Asia.....

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 8 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      Stephanie, the idea is: If there is only One God, all Prophets must be talking about the same thing. Not all religions are the same today because lower minded people changed the teachings of the original Prophets.

      The Essence of all the Prophets of God is One and the same.

      The Golden Rule exists in all major religions; it is from the same source.

      We must recognize All religions because to ignore a religion is to offend a culture and people do not like that.

      See:

      https://hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/Bahai-The...

    • stephaniedas profile image
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      Stephanie Das 8 months ago from Miami, US

      Hello, good point- the term "Middle East" is absolutely Eurocentric and has no defined boundaries. Rather, what we consider Middle East depends on current political situations.

    • stephaniedas profile image
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      Stephanie Das 8 months ago from Miami, US

      HI Jay, thanks for the response. I'm not sure what you mean with "one Religion". Could you explain further, or do you have a hub on the topic?

    • stephaniedas profile image
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      Stephanie Das 8 months ago from Miami, US

      Hey there, thanks for the informative reply! Being from Karachi, some people would consider you as part of the Middle East, and you are certainly well-informed about the region. I really appreciate your comments and criticism, as well as your perspective. Sometimes I think that what people see in the news can obscure the humanity of a place, which is why I try to focus not only on current political events, but on the people who live in a region as well.

    • profile image

      NNN Khan 9 months ago

      The first myth that should have been addressed is that the category of "Middle East" is an actual, fact/information-based "geographic place": which it is not. It is a Eurocentric term developed during the European colonial era, along with "Near East" and "Far East", to indicate relative zones of distance from "the West." What these three zones include and exclude changes from time to time, and therefore have no real objective informational value. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Somalia were never included as part of a "Middle East" until after 9/11, so that should tell us something about the political uses of the term. The appropriate terms should be geographically-based, not politically-based: these would be North Africa, East Africa, West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia. If one ignores this questionable "Middle East" framing, the rest of the information provided is good.

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      mmank 12 months ago

      im egyptian with blue eyes and blonde hair lol its acrually more common then people think

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 12 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      Very interesting article. It is my hope that all can learn to get along. All religions have the same source (God) therefore all prophets/leaders must be from the same source. I believe there is a Progression of religious thought in One Religion. What do you think?

    • mtariqsattar profile image

      Tariq Sattar 23 months ago from Karachi

      Very well written hub, Stephanie as it does successfully dispel most of the misconceptions that people may have, especially in the West. And because the region has been suffering of destabilization from sectarian-religious wars which often are fought between proxies of leading nations of the region and wider world.

      The region has suffered bad reputation for last more than three centuries; which is so unfortunate a case. It was a abode of various civilizations and religions; as your rightly mentioned that both Judaism and Christianity originating in Middle East. While giving birth to one of the finest human civilizations ever recorded in the history of the world. In fact, it was known as the 'East' oriental world - against 'West' Occidental. latter consisted of both civilizations of Rome and Greece; against the former, which was also home of great Egyptian, Persian, Mesopotamian and Babylonian civilizations.

      The east-oriental world was rich in its own way that benefited other civilizations it came in contact with. It is so unfortunate that people have forgotten this rich history of the Middle East and are completely duped as a result of contemporary Middles Eastern crisis, and go on to equalize it with barbarity and obscurantism.

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      dennis 2 years ago

      nice article quite informative

    • stephaniedas profile image
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      Stephanie Das 4 years ago from Miami, US

      Hi Basel, the truth is that most of the Middle East is very arid. Also, I did show the green Nile valley. The children are in a city, and the Bedouin man lives in the desert. So, while I certainly wouldn't want to generalize and give a false impression, I am of the opinion that I show a pretty wide variety of people who live in many different environments in the Middle East. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image

      Basel 4 years ago

      The photos that are here don't really help anybody change their misconception about the Middle East because you just showed the desert part of it.

    • stephaniedas profile image
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      Stephanie Das 4 years ago from Miami, US

      @April- Glad you enjoyed it! It is a strange feeling not to look like everyone else and get stared down...it has happened to me as well! Thank you for commenting.

      @Yaseen- I appreciate your comment and the fact that you wanted to correct me, but those titles were meant to be myths that I disputed in the writing. For example, I wrote "Myth#2: All Middle Easterner Speak Arabic" because I wanted to express that it is not true that they all speak Arabic. If you read the article, you'll see that my facts are correct!

    • profile image

      Yaseen 5 years ago

      Your writing is good but it lacks some details and accuracy. The heading and the contents are misleading , like (all middle eastern are speak Arabic)this is not true , you could say in the title majority are Arabs. It seems you are a journalist, but in your very first stages of that.

      Good Luck with your next writings

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      April 5 years ago

      Im so glad for this article. I'm half gypsy decent and am often looked at funny because I have light skin and eyes. Truth is I knew my place all along :)

    • stephaniedas profile image
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      Stephanie Das 5 years ago from Miami, US

      Thanks homesteadbound! I'm glad you enjoyed it and stopped by to take a look :)

    • homesteadbound profile image

      Cindy Murdoch 5 years ago from Texas

      This is such a well written hub and so full of good information. I am so glad I went and looked at mt notifications to find this.

    • stephaniedas profile image
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      Stephanie Das 5 years ago from Miami, US

      I'm glad you checked this article out! It is among my favorite hubs that I have written, because the topic is so relevant to today's world. If we want to learn about Israel and Palestine, Gaddafi, the Arab Spring, and our energy supply, we should be educated about the cultures of the Middle East so we don't make big mistakes.

      Also, I made a mistake in the fan mail...I'm actually from MD, not DE, but I've been living here for a few months and I'm loving it. I'm on my way out soon though, heading south for the winter.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 5 years ago from South Carolina

      Thanks for this informative, well written article about the people who live in the Middle East. Voted up, useful and interesting.

      Thanks also for the fan mail. Glad they you like the articles I write about our state of Delaware's beaches.

    • stephaniedas profile image
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      Stephanie Das 5 years ago from Miami, US

      Thank you to icciev and Cresentmoon for the comments. I've always loved geography, and think it's more important now than ever before to be well informed about people from all over the world. I'm glad you two liked this hub!

    • Cresentmoon2007 profile image

      Cresentmoon2007 5 years ago from Caledonia, MI

      Very well written and informative. Great hub. Voted up.

    • icciev profile image

      icciev 5 years ago from Kuwait

      Well thanks my friend for this nice article and overview about our region, really appreciated.