War on Want to work in North Africa and West Asia

2 September 2016 - 2:15pm

War on Want is expanding its international programme work to North Africa and West Asia. We have also made a conscious decision to correctly name what has long been called the Middle East to reflect decolonial terminology.

“Middle East” as a colonial designation



“We should flatly refuse the situation to which the Western countries wish to condemn us. Colonialism and imperialism have not paid their score when they withdraw their flags and their police forces from our territories. For centuries the foreign capitalists have behaved in the under-developed world like nothing more than criminals.” Frantz Fanon.

“Imperialism after all is an act of geographical violence through which virtually every space in the world is explored, charted, and finally brought under control. For the native, the history of colonial servitude is inaugurated by loss of the locality to the outsider; its geographical identity must thereafter be searched for and somehow restored. Because of the presence of the colonizing outsider, the land is recoverable at first only through imagination.” Edward Said.

With all the momentous changes unleashed by the “Arab Uprisings” and because of some ongoing conflicts in what is commonly called the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, War on Want has decided to create a new programme specifically focused on this area.

As War on Want is committed to advancing counter-hegemonic narratives, challenging structures of power and decolonising concepts and names, it is only fitting to call into question the colonial designation “Middle East” and propose a less problematic name for the programme: North Africa and West Asia (NAWA).


Let’s deconstruct the term “Middle East” a bit: Middle of where? And east of what?

Unlike “North Africa” (or other geographical areas in the world), Middle East does not refer to a place that is related to a specific continent. It is a geopolitical space that has been constructed by and in opposition to the West. This designation is part of the legacy of Orientalism, of creating the “other”, and constructing an imaginary about them to better master, control and exploit. In that respect the “East” has been fashioned in a subordinate and secondary position to the West that holds geographical centrality. This still holds today at many levels including in the dominant discourses and racist narratives constructed around the region.

The “Middle East” designation also effaces some communal histories and shared experiences and geographies with other nations and people in the region (in Asia for example) beyond those delineated by the centres of empire in order to maintain their zone of influence.

Therefore, if the usage of this name is taken for granted (even for practical and pragmatic reasons), it effectively means that in a way, we are accepting imperialist and colonial hierarchies, delineations and mapping. Moreover, names such as “Far East” have been abandoned but Middle East still persists. Perhaps, this is a reflection of the preponderant role imperial powers are still playing in the region.

Add to this the fact that it is not a precise designation as it means different things for different people: some people think of North Africa as in the Middle East, some see Egypt as mainly in the Middle East, others think that Turkey and Iran are not part of it (implying that only “Arab” nations gets to be included), others even include Afghanistan in the pervasive attempt to lump all Muslims together (especially when thinking about them as all extremists and fundamentalists).

The imperial and colonial dominance over the region has led it to being seen as a homogenous entity and to be reductively understood in terms of conflict and wars, ruthless dictators and passive populations, terrorism and extremism as well as rich oil reserves and lush deserts. This fixed imaginary and rigid representation of the other as well as the power to “narrate” or “block narratives” from emerging are hallmarks of imperialist culture and are inherent to what Edward Said calls “geographical violence”.

The task in front of us therefore is partly about cultural and discursive decolonisation that implies contesting how we are represented, how we are named and how we are categorised. This involves renaming and remapping our lands and histories through what Said called “imagining new geographies” that are not Eurocentric and imposed from without.

We have abandoned the deeply problematic language of “development”, a discourse that reproduced (or entrenched) patriarchal, colonial and capitalist structures of power. We have dropped the use of the term “Third World” as it has become irrelevant and condescending. Why not then go beyond the colonial designation: “Middle East”?

A more apt (surely not perfect) description of the region will be a term rooted in geography like the way it is with North Africa. And West Asia is very appropriate in this regard. On top of “Arab” countries, it also includes Turkey and Iran.

The ultimate purpose here is to reconceive a different way of seeing things and to seek out new spaces and invent new horizons of resistance in order to achieve true decolonisation and real emancipation.

Hamza Hamouchene

This piece is mainly inspired by discussions I had with dear friends and by two amazing books that continue to influence my thinking every day: Frantz Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" and Edward Said's "Culture and Imperialism".


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