Posted by on November 12, 2010 in Blog

NY1, one of New York City’s major local news stations, posted a short video story about newly-elected Senator Kristen Gilibrand’s upcoming trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Joining a delegation of senators, Gilibrand plans to, “meet with military commanders, diplomats and troops… to check in on the progress of the Obama administration's timetable for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.” It’s not every local news organization that presents news of substance, much less stories on significant world affairs. So, good job, NY1! Except for one small problem…Afghanistan and Pakistan are not in the Middle East, as the story’s headline claims. E for “effort,” NY1?

What (and where) exactly is the Middle East? The answer is a bit complicated.  Without addressing problematic Eurocentrism associated with such geographic terms, the Middle East generally comprises of the Arab countries of the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf, Iraq, the states in the area defined as the “Levant” (including Turkey), Egypt, and Iran. Sometimes the Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa beyond Egypt are included, and all referred to collectively as the “MENA” region.  Sometimes Sudan is included. Sometimes it’s not. The CIA even includes Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, which is a little strange, but it’s the CIA, so we won’t pick a fight. The Agency does not, however, include Afghanistan or Pakistan.  It puts them in South Asia.

To make convoluted matters worse, Americans are exasperatingly ignorant about geographic, religious, and cultural matters (to name a few) related to the Middle East, an ignorance made painfully embarrassing given the amount of energy and resources we invest in the region. These are not merely ambiguous statements or stereotypes about Americans’ global knowledge (or lack thereof); AAI President Jim Zogby, in his new book Arab Voices, quantifies the level to which the U.S. misconstrues what some people like to call, “The Muslim World” (again, wrong). Zogby cites in his book a Zogby International poll, which found that 65% of Americans incorrectly identify Iran as an Arab country. Woe is the Arab and Persian who discover that the average American can’t tell them apart.

The intention here is not to chide NY1 disproportionately for their misstep.  To be fair, an attempt to define a “Greater Middle East” includes Afghanistan among other countries not typically associated with the region. But this is problematic. It is a sad reality to begin with that American interest in the Middle East was bolstered by 9/11. This seems to have created a notion of a Middle East synonymous with “countries inhabited by angry Muslims/Arabs who want to kill us.” When our foreign policy officials enable this kind of thinking, attempts to promote a more nuanced understanding of the region become all the more challenging. As a news organization, NY1 should know better than to mix up their geography. But when their viewership imagines the Middle East and visualizes a Taliban fighter or Apu, careless errors in geographic accuracy can slip through the cracks, and the chasm of ignorance grows deeper.

And, in case you’re still not sure, neither the Taliban, nor Apu, come from the Middle East.