Common Misconceptions About the Middle East and Middle Eastern Culture
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.