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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
AB on August 14, 2020:
I find it interesting that you attribute the fact that Moroccans speak Arabic due to the ‘spread of Islam’ & the fact that they speak French & Spanish due to ‘colonisation’. The Arabs colonised Morocco too, that’s how Islam spread there. That’s how Morocco now has a Berber & Arab ethnic mix amongst its population. Indigenous Moroccans are Berber. The Europeans weren’t the only ones to colonise but this fact seems to be mostly ignored.
Dan on September 30, 2019:
Niaz, all countries are "Invented."
Arabs currently have 22 and most of the land in the region surrounding. Israel.
Arabs invaded the land of Israel int the 7th century A.D. with the spread of Islam.
Jews have lived continuously in the land of Israel for 3500 years.
Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on March 28, 2018:
Niaz, Jews and Palestinians both are related to the earlier Canaanites. According to Jewish history, the Jews, Led by Joshua invaded the Canaanite territory, killed many men, women and children (and animals) to set up Israel. The Jews and Canaanites were related, cousins. Abraham married a Canaanite.
Niaz on March 27, 2018:
Hi there. I believe Israel is an invented country created by European settler Jews and Palestinians are the real indigenous people of that land. You should've mentioned that.
Dr Karwan Hamadani on January 02, 2018:
No mentioning of Chaldeans, Assyrians, Yazidis, Azeris/Ajam, Balochi, Alawi or Hashemi, Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Mizrachi, Beta Israel, Sumerian, or Jesubites, list goes on ...
Ken on January 02, 2018:
1. Aramaic is a language that has been spoken in the area (by non-Muslims) for thousands of years. There are very few left who still speak it, but it is still spoken.
2. From 1878, enormous waves of Muslim immigration began arriving from outside the Middle East. (A time when the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the final of a series of wars with Russia. The Balkan nations were freed of Ottoman rule -except Albania which voluntarily remained.) The 27th Ottoman Sultan (reigning 1774 to 1789), Abdul Hamid I, launched a resettlement policy to bring foreign Muslims to various parts of the Ottoman Empire. But not limited to that time, example in 1830 many Algerian Turks were relocated to the empire.
You Forgot Assyrian on December 01, 2017:
You say that the Middle East is home to many different nationalities yet you failed to mention the Assyrians or even the Yazidis. Yeah, thanks for nothing. How disappointing.
Annie on April 05, 2017:
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 from Houston, TX USA on January 05, 2017:
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.
Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on January 03, 2017:
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.
Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on January 03, 2017:
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?
Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on January 03, 2017:
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.
NNN Khan on December 17, 2016:
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.
mmank on September 25, 2016:
im egyptian with blue eyes and blonde hair lol its acrually more common then people think
Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on September 20, 2016:
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?
Tariq Sattar from Karachi on November 02, 2015:
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.
dennis on November 06, 2014:
nice article quite informative
Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on December 16, 2012:
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.
Basel on November 27, 2012:
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.
Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on November 04, 2012:
@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!
Yaseen on September 14, 2012:
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
April on September 05, 2012:
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 :)
Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on October 24, 2011:
Thanks homesteadbound! I'm glad you enjoyed it and stopped by to take a look :)
Cindy Murdoch from Texas on October 24, 2011:
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.
Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on October 24, 2011:
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.
Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on October 24, 2011:
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.
Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on October 19, 2011:
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 from Caledonia, MI on October 19, 2011:
Very well written and informative. Great hub. Voted up.
icciev from Kuwait on October 19, 2011:
Well thanks my friend for this nice article and overview about our region, really appreciated.