Common Misconceptions

Engaging our readers with the rich diversity of the region is our main goal, but in order to be more effective in that effort, we need to address a few conceptual barriers. Humans are not born with an awareness of cultural difference; exposure to difference is necessary in order to gain that awareness. Often the exposure to places outside of one’s immediate experience is filtered by historical representations that focus on what early explorers thought were significant, or which governments used as propaganda, or which marketers used to entice the public, etc. The following misconceptions will help dispel these notions, and provide a clean (er) slate on which to build knowledge.

The most pervasive misconception that can obscure objective thinking about the Middle East is the idea that throughout history certain civilizations “progressed,” and others lagged behind.  This “evolutionary” historical construct (Anderson, 2006) frames history in terms of progress from primitive to advanced. It forms the basis of the perception that many communities were only significant in the past, and tends to represent such communities as primitive, or as though they are still living in the past. The Middle East, especially, is framed in terms of a glorious past, often relegated to the study of ancient history. Intentionally, or unintentionally, many of the sources of information one encounters tend to negate the present reality because of this. 

In addition to the way this region is often portrayed as trapped in antiquity, repeated images of violence, exotic “others” and stereotypes have deeply infiltrated the way it is seen. The Western knowledge base contains biases which harken back to historical power struggles between the Egyptians and Hittites, the Greeks and the Persians, the Eastern Romans (Byzantines) and the Persians, and later the Austro-Hungarians and the Ottomans, after Constantinople fell in 1453.  These give us a historical sense of the “East vs. West” divide. This divide was reified and accelerated during the era of European global colonization.   Despite this perceived “us vs. them” difference, however, people in the West share many of the same cultural roots of the Middle East.  These communities overlapped a great deal.  Greek culture, which is considered a cultural foundation for Europe, was spread by Alexander into as far as what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example.   Furthermore, Persian civilizations and Turkic communities had a deep and lasting impact on the literatures, philosophies, and sciences of Western civilizations.

Civilizations worldwide have adopted, and continue to adopt, many scientific developments from the region. From the pre-industrial era, all the way back to antiquity, in the times of the Sumerians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Ancient Egyptians. Some examples from the past include innovations in: writing, astronomy, optics, hydraulics, textiles, decorative arts, crop rotation, urban planning, irrigation, geometry, mathematics, organized libraries and universities, means of financial exchange, theological and philosophical achievements, and other developments from the region have had a significant impact on Europe and the world. Today, Middle Eastern countries are contributing to scientific breakthroughs, such as the growing of liver cells, participating in the research at CERN, soil desalinization, and many others.

In the following chapters, we discuss three main elements of Middle Eastern identities that are intended to counter the stereotypes and over-generalizations that can misconstrue one’s understanding of the region: cultural and linguistic diversity; the role of religion in forming diverse cultural identities and perspectives; and the impact of outside influences, and in particular in the form of Western imperialism.  Chapter One is an overview of one of the key elements of cultural diversity, language groups and linguistic history. We describe religious and sectarian beliefs and cultural significance in detail in Chapter Two. Chapter Three is dedicated to imperialism. Out of the 49 Muslim-majority countries today, only 4 were never colonized: Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. We briefly discuss the implications of European global power struggles and wars in the region, as well as the encroachment of European institutions into local economies and ways of life.