Review of Is There a Middle East?: The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept edited by Michael E. Bonnie, Abbas Amant, and Michael Ezekiel Gasper Stanford University Press

Is There a Middle East?: The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept. Edited by Michael E. Bonnie, Abbas Amant, and Michael Ezekiel Gasper. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press: Stanford, 2012. ISBN: 9780804775274

Throughout much of its recent history, the West has attempted describe “the Middle East” as a single ethno-geographic unit. Is There a Middle East?: The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept is a collection of ten essays, each of which examines a different aspect of the West’s conceptualization the “Middle East.” The overarching argument of the book is that the West manufactured the concept of the “Middle East” as it is known today, in order to fulfill specific political, economic, ideological, and religious goals. The collection cautions its audience to think critically about the meaning of the term “Middle East” when referring to an incredibly diverse population and widely variant geography.

While the notion that the designation “Middle East” is imprecise is not new, (historian Nikki Keddie asked the question “Is there a Middle East?” in an essay she penned over thirty years ago) (p. 238), this book fills an important scholarly gap. Until now there was no single volume that looked at the issue of the West’s construction of the “Middle East” holistically, using a wide range of perspectives from scholars in disciplines such as geography, political science, and history. In addition, it covers a long time span, from the Ottoman era through the recent “War on Terror.” The Arab Spring movement only receives cursory attention; most likely because not enough time has elapsed for scholars to fully appreciate the sources.

Is There a Middle East? is very careful to show that religious, cultural, and political identity in the “Middle East” is not monolithic, and that the Western perception of a universal Arab, Sunni Muslim “Middle East” is deeply flawed. However, there is a distinct lack of local voices from the region itself, an oversight that should be remedied in future editions. It would be very helpful for the reader to understand more fully the impact of Western cultural hegemony on local people as well as the authors own understanding of the “Middle East” and its relationship with the West.

Is There a Middle East? takes a nuanced approach to the issue of Western Orientalism. For example, in Dr. Daniel Varisco’s essay “When Did the Holy Land Stop Being Holy?: Surveying the Middle East as Sacred Geography,” there is a thoughtful critique of Said’s polemic Orientalism. Varisco questions Said’s binary designations of “Orient” vs. “Oxidant” particularly in reference to the Holy Lands. Varisco writes: “The problem is that before the Orient was imagined as an inferior surrogate for Western authors, it was discursively appropriated as the Holy Land via the mythical and historical sacra articulated in scripture.” (p. 122) Varisco recognizes Said’s valuable scholarly contributions to the field of “Middle Eastern” studies, but by looking for a common, undifferentiated thread between the Abrahamic traditions, Varisco links both Eastern and Western civilization to the sacred spaces that border the Eastern Mediterranean world.  This approach is a welcome challenge to the popular theory of East/West dualism, represented most famously by Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations.

While Is There a Middle East? will be of interest to scholars and regional specialists, it is perhaps most valuable as a teaching tool. Its language and approach, with very few exceptions, makes this text accessible to both undergraduates and graduate students.  Michael E. Bonnie’s essay Of Maps and Regions: Where is the Geographer’s Middle East? would be particularly useful for introducing beginning “Middle Eastern” Studies students to some of the ambiguities inherent in mapping the Middle East and North Africa region.

Despite the difficulties in defining the “Middle East”, most of the authors in this book agree that the “Middle East” does in fact exist in some form or another. According to one of the book’s Editors, Michael Gaspar: “The Middle East exists because the West has possessed sufficient power to give the idea substance.” (p. 240) Is There a Middle East? represents a valuable contribution the field of “Middle East” studies. It offers its readers a new approach to the question of how the West imagines the “Middle East,” and it is appropriate for scholars and students from many different academic disciplines.


Reviewed by Molly Patterson, University of Wisconsin – Whitewater
Edited by Tanya S. Maus

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]