The "Middle East" as a term can be as contentious as the region it identifies. It's not a precise geographical area like Europe or Africa. It's not a political or economic alliance like the European Union. It's not even an agreed-upon term by the countries that constitute it. So what is the Middle East?
A Controversial Term
The "Middle East" is not a term Middle Easterners gave themselves, but a British term borne of a colonial, European perspective. The term's origins are seeped in controversy for having originally been a European imposition of geographic perspective according to European spheres of influence. East from where? From London. Why "Middle"? Because it was half-way between the United Kingdom and India, the Far East.
By most accounts, the earliest reference to the "Middle East" occurs in a 1902 edition of the British journal National Review, in an article by Alfred Thayer Mahan entitled "The Persian Gulf and International Relations." The term gained common usage after it was popularized by Valentine Chirol, a turn-of-the-century correspondent for the London times in Tehran. Arabs themselves never referred to their region as the Middle East until the colonial usage of the term became current and stuck.
For a time, the "Near East" was the term used for the Levant--Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Jordan--while "Middle East" applied to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Iran. The American perspective lumped the region into one basket, giving more credence to the general term "Middle East."
Defining "The Middle East"
Today, even Arabs and other people in the Middle East accept the term as a geographical point of reference. Disagreements persist, however, about the exact geographical definition of the region. The most conservative definition limits the Middle East to the countries bound by Egypt to the West, the Arab Peninsula to the South, and at most Iran to the East.
A more expansive view of the Middle East, or the Greater Middle East, would stretch the region to Mauritania in West Africa and all the countries of North Africa that are members of the Arab League; eastward, it would go as far as Pakistan. The Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East includes the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus in its definition of the Middle East. Politically, a country as far east as Pakistan is increasingly included in the Middle East because of Pakistan's close ties and involvements in Afghanistan. Similarly, the former south and southwestern republics of the Soviet Union--Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan--can also be included in a more expansive view of the Middle East because of the republics' cultural, historical, ethnic and especially religious cross-overs with countries at the core of the Middle East.