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This, to me strange, topic has come up a few times lately, usually about Iran not being a middle eastern country. In fact it just came up in the chat room but pretty regularly when chatting to people travelling here in Georgia too.

Here's the example from the chat room as stated by HaLaBi a couple of hours ago:

unlike Iran, where public execution is so famous and on daily basis, Iran is not an arab country and not considered from middle east. persians are totally different than arabs. So do not mix up.

So I always thought that Turkey was the "near east" (not sure about all or part of the Balkans though), China and Japan were the "far east" (probably south-east Asia too), and the area in the middle around the holy lands and most Arab and Islamic countries were the "middle east" because they're in the middle (not sure about the Caucasus countries though).

But then I'm pretty regularly coming across people saying Iran is not the middle east. There's a good few Iranian travellers in my part of the world right now. There's not too many Israelis but I wonder if the same people would also tell me Israel isn't the middle east for similar reasons.

So my question was:

Are all countries between the "near east" and the "far east" then "middle eastern" countries?

Or is "middle eastern" supposed to be a synonym for "Arabic"?

I've assumed that "Semitic", "Middle Eastern", "Arabic", and "Muslim/Moslem" are all terms which cover overlapping groups of people and/or the places they are from - but do most people think otherwise?

But now my question is:

Is "middle east" a contentious term that should be avoided by people travelling in the area either to avoid upsetting people or simply to avoid being misunderstood?

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As such the question is not uninteresting. However, I think that this is rather a discussion for the chat than for the site. This being said, note that some people even include the Northern African countries (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lybia and Egypt) to the "Middle East". I have the impression that this is quite common across the Atlantic. –  user766 Jun 3 '12 at 19:49
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@AndrewGrimm you are right, They look down on arabs, Arabs look down on them. It's been mutual feeling since forever! –  user1712 Jun 3 '12 at 23:10
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If it's considered bad form to downvote without constructive comments, then it is surely bad form to vote to close without constructive comments. –  hippietrail Jun 4 '12 at 4:24
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I've reworded my question to make it less about defining the term and more about whether we travellers should use or avoid it when travelling if it's contentious. –  hippietrail Jun 4 '12 at 4:33
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Without your revised question, it would be a question for geography buffs and not for travelers. Now, that you changed it, I can't remove my close vote so I'm just explaining my voting. –  John Doe Jun 4 '12 at 9:48
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3 Answers

Are all countries between the "near east" and the "far east" then "middle eastern" countries?

I always thought Middle East and Near East are mostly synonyms. (For me, this is probably influenced by the fact that the Finnish word for Middle East is Lähi-itä, literally Near East.)

Even if we stick to English terms, Wikipedia tends to agree (emphasis mine):

The term Near East was in use exclusively during the 2nd half of the 19th century. In the 1st half of the 20th century it began to share the geographical stage with the term, Middle East. Since then Near East and Middle East have been approximately synonymous. Near East is used in some historic contexts and Middle East in others with no major semantic difference.

So, as to your other questions:

Are Iran and Israel “middle eastern” countries?

In common modern usage (at least modern "Western" usage), yes, Israel and Iran certainly are Middle Eastern countries. When there's something on the news about the Middle East crisis, etc, quite often it is somehow related to these countries (among others), isn't it?

enter image description here
"Countries most commonly considered as part of Middle East", according to Finnish-language Wikipedia. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Or is "middle eastern" supposed to be a synonym for "Arabic"?

No, I don't think so; never heard of such idea before. I think Middle East is first and foremost a geographical term.

Of course, there is no "official" definition for these terms, and anyone is free to use them as they wish. It would likely be futile trying to arrive at a definition everyone agrees upon, especially given the contentious recent history of the area.

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(I don't know if OP was specifically looking for non-European/non-Western viewpoints on the terminology; at least the question didn't say so...) –  Jonik Jun 3 '12 at 20:10
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I'm interested in how travellers from anywhere who are competent in English would use this term, as well as how any "official" sources might define it. –  hippietrail Jun 3 '12 at 20:16
    
It's true I didn't come across "near east" very often until I started reading more material written in the past. But this only results in adding Turkey to the list of countries maybe in and maybe not in the middle east... –  hippietrail Jun 3 '12 at 20:29
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Middle East is a geographical area east of the Mediterranean sea and west of India. Sometimes the "stans" are included (Afghanistan and Pakistan) but more often they're not because when the term was originally coined they were part of British India.

As mentioned in the comments, North African countries are considered "Middle East" in some cases, because they are such geo-politically. On the other hand, Israel is considered "European" even though it's nowhere near Europe, in some cases, especially for geo-politically based affiliations such as UN groupings or sports affiliations.

Iran and Israel both are definitely middle-eastern countries, geographically.

Semitic people are people originally from the Middle East, but don't have to be so now. Jews are considered Semitic people (hence the most prominent usage of "antisemitism" being essentially anti-jewish behavior), but most Jews are outside the Middle East area (approximately half of the world Jewish population have Israeli citizenship, of which many live outside of Israel).

Arabs are also Semitic people. Persians are not. Arabic and Hebrew are closely related (even though the alphabets are significantly different at first glance), Arabic and Persian are not related (even though they share the alphabet and many words).

Muslim people are people who are of Muslim faith. Don't have to be Semitic at all and not all Semitic people are Muslim (there are Jews who are Jewish, Arabs who are Christian, and Persians, Indians, Indonesians and Europeans who are not Semitic, but are Muslim).

So these are three different terms (geographical, ethnic and religious), but many people can be described by combination of those.

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I am a bit confused. You say that "Semitic people are people originally from the Middle East". This claim is not really true. For instance, what about Ashkenazi Jews who are originally from (central) Europe and who have emigrated to Israel. They are originally from Europe and now live in the Middle East. And what about those who are born in Europe and who are still living there, and have never lived in Israel? –  user766 Jun 4 '12 at 14:24
    
@lejohn Ashkenazi Jews are not originally from Central Europe, they're originally from Judea. It has been proven in research that the Jews all around the world are very closely related and are in fact the same ethnicity. I'll leave it to you to read about the Jewish Diaspora. –  littleadv Jun 4 '12 at 17:16
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Agree that "Iran and Israel both are definitely Middle-Eastern" countries, geographically. I've heard of Iran being called part of Southern Asia (lumped in with India and nearby countries), but due to its frequent conflicts with Iraq, I believe most people in the U.S. would consider it to be part of the Middle East. –  tcrosley Jun 4 '12 at 19:14
    
@tcrosley - "I've heard of Iran being called part of Southern Asia" - I believe that would be geographically correct as well. It is a bit of overlapping areas. But I might be wrong there. Geo-politically Iran is Middle-East, by all means. –  littleadv Jun 4 '12 at 19:41
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@lejohn Diaspora museum in Tel Aviv is small but highly educational. I believe you can start with going through the Wikipedia references: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_diaspora. They've even referenced Ilan Peppe, not a big Zionist by far (some in Israel consider him to be a traitor), so it seems pretty "balanced". –  littleadv Jun 4 '12 at 21:37
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I think all of the answers are great, but I will answer from a different perspective since I live in the so-called Middle East.

As some said, There is no official definition of middle east. But there are several definitions made for different purposes.

For example, As an Arab we Arabs usually use Middle East to refer to Arab Countries. Regarding Israel (we Arabs don't use Israel, we call it Palestine), it is considered to be an Arab country since we believe it's an Arab land. Regarding Iran, We don't consider it as a middle east country while Iran is only few kilometers away but we are totally different, Language, Food, Dress, culture and even different type of Islam.

On the other hand, non-Arabic media use the term Middle East to refer to the Islamic world in general (or what they call the Greater Middle East). This term is used in the western-media especially when the term terrorism is available, When used for this purpose Iran is included and Israel is excluded.

About Iranians (Persians) and Arabs, We actually have a very long history of wars and conflicts so we prefer not be included in the same category not only in the middle east issue but also in religion issues (since Iranians are mostly Shia and Arabs are mostly Sunnah). These problems started a long time ago specially when the small Arab army defeated the great Persian army in the year 636 in the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah. Right now Iran is occupying the Arab land of Arabstan and three small islands which belong to the United Arab Emirates. Another issue is the Arabian-Persian Gulf conflict.

Regarding Palestine (A.K.A. Israel), as @littleadv said, Arabs and Jews are actually cousins, Language, dress, food, culture even our religions are somehow close but both of us do not like to be included in the same category. While Jews in Palestine are considered as part of Europe in some cases, Arabs in Palestine are considered to be from the middle east!!

Bottom line: Middle East is a term that can be used in two identical sentences said by two different people resulting in two different meanings!

UPDATE: Some have taken offence at my words when I said "Palestine (A.K.A. Israel). This is not a personal belief nor a political issue, this is a fact. Check this this Wikipedia page:

Palestine (Arabic: فلسطين‎ Filasṭīn, Falasṭīn, Filisṭīn; Greek: Παλαιστίνη, Palaistinē; Latin: Palaestina; Hebrew: פלשתינה Palestina) is a conventional name, among others, used to describe the geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and various adjoining lands.[1][2][3][4][5][6] The region is also known as the Land of Israel (Hebrew: ארץ־ישראל Eretz-Yisra'el)

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(note that several (20+) comments were removed. Please keep political discussions off the comments / posts and in the chat room. If you disagree with an answer, the down vote is there, or you can flag it for a moderator) –  Mark Mayo Jun 4 '12 at 0:42
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