Geography and demographics: The basics

16 Apr

I see two frequent lacks in the common knowledge base of many of my fellow Americans.  I myself was (and still am, though to a lesser extent) guilty of them, and have thus participated in the perpetuation of the ignorance.  However, the correction of these very fixable errors is a simple task.  Below I attempt to aid in this correction through discussion and a couple of interactive games.

First, a lack of basic geographical knowledge of the Middle East is rampant.  In speaking with many of my friends (fellow undergraduates at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI, USA, a well-regarded academic institution) I found that while many of them could name over 75% of nations considered to be in the Middle East, when asked to apply this knowledge to a map, they were very limited in accurately placing the names to the shapes and geographical relations.  This lack of geographical understanding, though seemingly trivial, actually produces a significant amount of ideological work by abstracting the Middle Eastern world, limiting a representation of diversity between nations and peoples in the region that from approaching reality.  Ideology is a comprehensive set of beliefs and ideas that operates through our unconscious consent.  Ideological work is defined by James Lull as the winning and securing of hegemony over time.  The ideological work produced by this ignorance is in its abstraction of the geographic region, which is a perpetuation of the Eurocentric idea that the Middle East is the playing field where our battles are fought, our blames placed, and our hegemony secured.  To allow people to gain a better geographic awareness of the Middle East, I have created a game on Sporcle (  Try it, pass or fail, and let me know what you think about its effectiveness, your own ability, and other ways that a basic geographic knowledge of the Middle East can be disseminated.

A second basic issue that is widespread throughout my own social network (and can be seen anywhere at any scale) is the conflation of Arabs and Muslims.  This conflation is the existence of a monolithic representation (lumping distinct groups into categories, generalizing in an inappropriate way), particularly in the Western world, which fails to acknowledge the distinctness of the Arab ethnicity and the Islamic faith.  To challenge this representation, try the following Sporcle quiz:

How many were you able to get?  If you tried them both you may have realized that the overlap consisted of only three countries (Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran), and not one of these three countries is an Arab nation! In fact, while it is true the vast majority of Arabs are Muslim, only approximately 20% of Muslims are Arabs, and the vast majority of Muslims reside in South-East Asia (Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, etc.).   A quote from The Telegraph lends an insight to the relationship of the distribution of Muslims between other nations as well, stating: Germany has more Muslims than Lebanon, China has more Muslims than Syria, Russia has more Muslims than Jordan and Libya combined, and Ethiopia has nearly as many Muslims as Afghanistan.  The conflation of Muslims and Arabs is clearly a false representation and simplifies the true beauty of the world’s diversity.

Hopefully these games have been informative and illustrated some simple, fixable issues that have implications for the complex web of day-to-day interactions, scaled all the way to international relations, and have proposed some simple, elementary methods for resolution of these issues.

Devin Riley

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