15 Maps That Don't Explain the Middle East at All
August 8, 2014 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Violent upheaval in the Middle East has recently spawned all manner of maps purporting to explain how the region got this way. Here, instead, are 15 maps that don’t claim as much. Or rather, they do not seek, like many other maps, to capture some fixed set of core facts about the region. Instead, these maps provide a more fluid perspective on the Middle East, often by showing what didn’t happen as opposed to what did. But for all these maps don’t show, they do illustrate one thing: the sobering fact that no one map—or even set of maps—can ever explain the region’s complex history and politics.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (13 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Map 14 (what people term the “Middle East”) is somewhat conservative and underestimates geographic ignorance; I've seen people (though, granted, not commonly) refer to Indonesia and Malaysia as being part of the Middle East (gee, I wonder why?)
posted by acb at 6:03 PM on August 8, 2014

These are all pretty cool in their own way, but the last one was really interesting to see how the democratic votes against the US always seemed to be followed by a coup. Odd that.
posted by dejah420 at 6:03 PM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Gloriously understated zinger from the very last map!
Caveats about oversimplification aside, there does seem to be something of a pattern in which democratic elections move countries from blue to red, and then coups quickly turn them blue again.
posted by edheil at 6:58 PM on August 8, 2014

Do No (More) Harm
Every time the U.S. touches the Middle East, it makes things worse. It's time to walk away and not look back.
posted by Golden Eternity at 8:10 PM on August 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

If only there were some way that the US could empower some other, some neutral, internationally administered kind of force that could... engage in peacekeeping missions... I'm sure a couple billion dollars per year could be cut from the US military SOMEWHERE....
posted by tivalasvegas at 8:48 PM on August 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

The reason we talk about maps so much with the Middle East is that the post-Ottoman states are unstable by design. Syria and Iraq were deliberately designed for minority ethno-religious rule. Lebanon is a country with an ethnic and religious mix so unstable that they can't take a census, because it would rock the country's constitutional order. Saying that a bunch of maps don't explain it is throwing out the fact that, in understanding why the region is unstable, geography really does help.
posted by graymouser at 6:17 AM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

[A couple of comments deleted. Let's stick to discussing the maps and the info they represent rather than generalized "RARR US/Obama Sux &/or Roolz!" thing?]
posted by taz (staff) at 6:20 AM on August 9, 2014

I'm not so sure that the states are unstable by design, as much as that nobody has really come up with a way to make ethno-religious states stable. The Middle East is hardly unique in this regard: Europe, before the Enlightenment, was in a constant state of turmoil that frequently turned on religious differences. It was hardly free from this sort of thing even after the Enlightenment: it hasn't been long since the most recent Balkans' war; and even if WW2 was secular, the Holocaust was an prime example of religious genocide.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:32 AM on August 9, 2014

Post-war Europe features much more homogeneous countries than nineteenth century Europe did. Partly due to the Holocaust, partly due to the Austro-Hungarian empire breaking up partly on ethnic lines and partly due to refugee movement in the Second World War. Western Europe was relatively tidy after they killed/chased out all the Catholics or Protestants, as applicable, but central and eastern Europe featured diverse societies.
posted by hoyland at 6:45 AM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Funny, I'm distracting myself from putting the finishing touches on a paper I'm about to submit by reading this thread. My paper is partly about how the Middle East very quickly became an area of prime importance to the US, however, many of the paradigms for interpreting the region could not speak to the material interests of the US in the region (how can the Bible, King Tut, and Deserts inform the need for oil access? they can't), thus, policymakers applied aregional theories to the middle east--particularly Geopolitics. They really didn't know anything about the region but--with this one quick trick!--they tried to explain and understand behavior through a heavily ideological framework.

Simply fascinating that it is still going on.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:43 AM on August 9, 2014

True, but religion really isn't important in most of modern Europe, not the way it was before WW2. I think this has a lot to do with it - it's easier to get along with neighbours of different faiths if none of you are very serious about it.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:46 AM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

These are hilarious and I'm so grateful for this article. There's a whole world of bad clickbait web pages now, "three amazing maps that will explain the world" nonsense. But it's easy to lie with maps, even easier than lying with statistics. Nice to see a more honest set of cartographic examples.
posted by Nelson at 7:48 AM on August 9, 2014

Wow, that's a great series of maps; many thanks for the post! I found this (from #2) quite eye-opening:
Shown here are the geographic origins of the Normans and Seljuks, peoples who emerged from Scandinavia and the Central Asian steppe to conquer the Christian and Muslim worlds, respectively, before coming into conflict with one another during the Crusades. In light of their remote origins, the Normans and Seljuks were originally considered uncivilized barbarians by members of the civilizations they ultimately conquered. Both groups zealously embraced their new subjects’ religions to compensate. Thus, when the Normans and Seljuks faced off in the 11th century, the rhetoric of religious war helped each side prove its piety. That same rhetoric performs a similar function today.
posted by languagehat at 7:52 AM on August 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

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