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Five Myths About the Middle East

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The greatest struggle for Middle Easterners isn't the battle against terrorism, or the battle within Islam, or the problem of authoritarianism in most Middle East countries. It's a problem of perception--the many and varied ways westerners misinterpret, mis-characterize, stereotype and flatly misrepresent various people and issues across the greater Middle East. It's important to face the myths head-on, demolish them and correct the record. Here are five of the most common myths.

The Middle East is Synonymous with the Arab World

Not at all. Afghanistan, Iran, Israel and Turkey, to name just four countries, are in the Middle East, but except for Israel’s Palestinian-Arabs, the majority of their populations are not Arabs. Ethnically, Iran is made up for the most part of Persians and Kurds. Afghanistan’s population is Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak and Turkmen. A quarter of Israel’s population is Arab, the rest is Jewish, though from varying backgrounds. Turkey’s population is either Turkmen or Kurds. Large portions of populations in Arab nations such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are not Arabs but mostly Asian laborers. In the UAE’s case, the majority of the population is non-Arab.

All Arabs Are Muslims

Not quite. While it’s accurate to say that all Arab nations are, with Lebanon’s exception, overwhelmingly Muslim, keep in mind that Egypt's 80 million people include some 9 million Coptic Christians. Lebanon is mostly Muslim, but its dozen-odd denominations include Christian Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, whose numbers add up to between 25 to 30% of the population. Oil-producing countries have imported huge numbers of laborers from Asia. Many, such as laborers from Indonesia and Pakistan, are Muslims. Many are not.

All Muslims Are Arabs

Not even close. It’s perhaps a surprise to most westerners that the majority of Muslims do not live in Arab countries. Based on the CIA Factbook’s 2007 estimates, the most populous Muslim countries are, in that order, Indonesia (202 million Muslims), Pakistan (160 million), India (151 million), Bangladesh (125 million), Egypt (72 million), Turkey (71 million), Nigeria (68 million), Iran (64 million). Egypt is the only Arab country in the bunch. Taking Egypt out of the equation, the seven remaining countries have a combined Muslim population of 841 million, exceeding by almost a factor of three the 330 million Muslims in the 23 countries of the Arab League (assuming the Palestinian Authority counts as an unofficial country).

The Middle East and Arab Nations Are Awash in Oil

Neither is true. The Arab League adds up to 23 countries (including the Palestinian Authority). The Greater Middle East adds up to more than 30 countries. Of those, only a handful — Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Libya, and to a lesser extent Oman — are major oil-producing countries. Several Arab and Middle Eastern countries have minor oil deposits, but not in amounts sizable enough to drive their economies.

More on Oil and the Middle East:

Anti-Semitism Is Inherent to Arab History

Not so. “The earliest specifically anti-Semitic statements in the Middle East occurred among the Christian minorities,” historian Bernard lewis writes in What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, “and can usually be traced back to European originals. They had limited impact, and at the time for example of the Dreyfus trial in France, when a Jewish officer was unjustly accused and condemned by a hostile court, Muslim comments usually favored the persecuted Jew against his Christian persecutors. But the poison continued to spread," as Nazis disseminated European-style anti-Semitism in the Middle East after 1933.
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