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Charles Kurzman, “Teaching the Middle East in 10 Quiz Questions,” June 30, 2017 (updated March 20, 2020).

If you’re teaching social studies or world history or current events, your students may be curious about the Middle East. The region seems to be unavoidable in global public debate.

Here’s a quick quiz to help you teach about the Middle East, whether or not you consider yourself an expert. All shall be revealed with a click on the word “Answer.” Answers are current as of March 2020.

A PDF version of the quiz (without answers) is available here.

1. When was the term “Middle East” coined, and in which language?
a) 7th century, Arabic
b) 16th century, Turkish
c) Late 19th century, English
d) Mid-20th century, Arabic

(c) Late 19th century, English

The “Middle East” is not an ancient term, and it is not a term that originated in the Middle East. It was coined in the United States in the late 19th century, popularized in English and other European languages in the early 20th century, and translated into Middle Eastern languages in the mid-20th century. Here is the first reference that I’ve found (so far), from Harper’s Bazaar magazine (March 10, 1883, page 154).

As more old publications are digitized, perhaps earlier references will surface. Search for yourself in the New York Times‘s archive, for example (articles before 1922 are in the public domain). Pro tip: put quotation marks around words and phrases (such as “Middle East”) for an exact match; Middle East without quotation may generate results where the words appear separately.

2. Which map(s) represent the Middle East? (Circle all that apply)

In the early 20th century, (b) might have been the correct answer. The term “Middle East” referred to the region between the Far East (now called East Asia) and the Near East (what we now call the Balkans and the Middle East). That’s how Alfred Thayer Mahan, the architect of U.S. global naval strategy, used the term in 1902:

Source: Alfred Thayer Mahan, “The Persian Gulf and International Relations,” National Review, September 1902, pages 27-45.

Malta and Gibraltar were colonial outposts for British naval forces. According to Mahan, global naval forces would need similar colonial way stations in the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. The term “Middle East” was rare enough that Mahan thought he had invented it.

In the mid-20th century, however, the Middle East migrated westward. The Middle East Studies Association, the preeminent professional association for the study of the region, defines its subject as ranging from Pakistan in the east to Morocco in the west, in keeping with map (d).

However, some organizations, especially intergovernmental organizations, use different definitions, such as “Middle East and North Africa” (MENA), in which the Middle East corresponds more to map (c), as distinct from North Africa. Some definitions of the Middle East do not include Pakistan.

As an exercise, go to Wikipedia’s page on the Middle East and select various languages from the list on the side of the page – what maps do they use?

3. What are the four most widely spoken indigenous languages in the Middle East?

If we use the Middle East Studies Association’s definition of the Middle East, then the four most widely spoken languages in the region are Arabic, Turkish, Urdu (if we include Pakistan in the category of the Middle East), and Persian, according to the Ethnologue atlas of the world’s languages. If we don’t include Pakistan in the Middle East, the fourth most commonly spoken language would be Kurdish, dialects of which are spoken in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

Arabic is spoken primarily in North Africa, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula. Turkish and other Turkic languages are spoken primarily in Turkey, Azerbaijan, northwest and northeast Iran, and Central Asia. Urdu is spoken primarily in Pakistan, as well as in northern India. Persian (called Farsi in Persian) is spoken primarily in Iran and Afghanistan (where it is known as Dari), as well as Tajikistan (where it is known as Tajik).

English is also widely spoken in the region, as well as French (primarily in former French colonies), but the question asked about “indigenous” languages. Other languages in the region include Hebrew and Tamazight (formerly known as Berber), among others.

The location of these language communities is colorfully displayed in this pair of maps from the Gulf/2000 collection at Columbia University (which defines the Middle East as distinct from North Africa):

4. What percentage of the world’s Muslim population lives in the Middle East?
a) 10.4%
b) 30.1%
c) 41.2%
d) 61.9%

If we include Pakistan, as the Middle East Studies Association does, the answer is (c) 41.2%: approximately 647 million of the world’s total Muslim population of 1.57 billion, according to the Pew Research Center report, Mapping the Global Muslim Population, which undertook a systematic estimate of the world’s Muslim population in 2009.

Without Pakistan, the answer would be (b) 30.1%: approximately 473 million. (Just under one quarter of the world’s human population of 6.8 billion is Muslim, according to the Pew report.)

Although Islam emerged in the Middle East – revealed by God to the Messenger Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic) beginning in 610 C.E., according to Muslims — most Muslims now live outside of the Middle East. This map, drawn by Christian missionaries a century ago, charts the approximate dates of the spread of Islam to various regions:

Source: Samuel M. Zwemer, Islam: A Challenge to Faith (New York: Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1907), fold-out map between pp. 56-57.

Follow-up questions: Perhaps you know which country has the largest percentage of the world’s Muslim population? Do you know which countries are listed second, third, and fourth? Examine this map from the Pew Research Center’s report, Mapping the Global Muslim Population:

5. What percentage of the Middle East’s population is Muslim?
a) 85.5%
b) 93.0%
c) 99.1%
d) 99.9%

The answer is (b) 93.0%. The second-most numerous religious group in the region is Christians (4.0%), including Roman Catholics, multiple Eastern Orthodox churches, and numerous Protestant denominations. The third-largest religious group is Jews (0.8%). Smaller religious groups include Bahais, Druze, Yezidis, Zoroastrians, and others.
Data source: The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), National Profiles, 2011 update.

Most of these religious minorities live along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, although there are significant Christian communities in Egypt and elsewhere, as well as longstanding Armenian Christian, Bahai, Jewish, and Zoroastrian communities in Iran.

Source: M. Izady, from the Gulf/2000 map collection at Columbia University.

6. Which of the following statements about Sunni and Shia Muslims is/are true? (Check all that apply)
a) Approximately half of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and half are Shia.
b) Sunni and Shia Muslims follow five different pillars of Islam.
c) Sunni and Shia Muslims disagree about the succession of leadership after the Prophet Muhammad.
d) Sunni and Shia Muslims have been unable to live in mixed communities due to recurrent conflict.

The only correct statement on this list is (c): Shia Muslims, who comprise approximately one tenth of the world’s Muslims – forming a majority only in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain – believe that the Muhammad, the Messenger of Islam, should have been succeeded by his son-in-law Ali and Ali’s male descendants. Sunnis believed that leadership need not be limited to Muhammad’s lineage. Both Sunni and Shia Muslims follow the same basic creed, although there are slight differences in prayers and various theological issues. On most issues, there is more variety within Sunni Islam and Shia Islam than between them, and Sunnis and Shias have lived together in mixed communities for centuries with rare outbreaks of conflict. The rise of sectarian conflict over the past generation is unprecedented in Islamic history.

Note: This map, from the Gulf/2000 collection at Columbia University, treats Wahhabism as separate from Sunni Islam; this view is not widely shared among academics, who generally treat Wahhabism as a subset of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam.

7. When did Israeli-Palestinian conflict begin?
a) Biblical times
b) The Crusades
c) After World War I
d) After World War II

(c) After World War I.

Israeli nationalism, first known as Political Zionism, was invented by Theodor Herzl in 1896; Palestinian nationalism was invented around 1917, as the Ottoman Empire was dismembered in World War I. Periodic conflicts in the 1920s and 1930s predated the founding of Israel in the 1940s and the establishment of a partially autonomous Palestinian National Authority in the 1990s. This is not an ancient conflict.
Sources for further reading: David Vital, The Origins of Zionism (1976); Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (1997).


8. In which of the following Middle Eastern countries has the United States conducted armed interventions? (Circle all that apply)
a) Algeria
b) Iraq
c) Libya
d) Somalia
e) Syria
f) Yemen

All of them. Americans may not recall all of the countries that the United States has invaded, but many people in those countries remember.

Source: Barbara Salazar Torreon and Sofia Plagakis, “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2019,” Congressional Research Service, July 17, 2019.

9. Which of the following Middle Eastern countries have sizeable oil reserves? (Circle all that apply)
a) Jordan
b) Saudi Arabia
c) Syria
d) United Arab Emirates

(b) Saudi Arabia and (d) United Arab Emirates have some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world, but not all Middle Eastern countries are petrochemically fortunate (and not all oil-rich countries are Middle Eastern).

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Crude Oil Proved Reserves, 2018.” The map is now available in a different format.

10. Between September 12, 2001, and the end of 2019, how many people in the United States were killed by Islamist terror attacks? (Out of the total of 290,000 Americans who were murdered during this period.)
a) 141
b) 282
c) 484
d) More than 1,000

(a) 141. A spreadsheet listing these attacks, as well as foiled attacks, is available on my website.

Source: Charles Kurzman, “Muslim-American Involvement with Violent Extremism, 2001-2019,” January 2020.

For more information on Islamist terrorism, and why there has been less of it than anticipated after the attacks of 9/11, please see my book The Missing Martyrs, Second Edition, Updated for the Age of ISIS (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Bonus Question: How many of these were killed by extremists from the Muslim-majority countries whose U.S. visas were suspended in 2017 and 2020?
a) 0
b) More than 0

(a) 0. There have been zero fatalities in the U.S. by extremists from the Muslim-majority countries on the Trump administration’s travel ban: Chad (later removed), Iran, Iraq (later removed), Libya, Somalia, Sudan (later removed), Syria, and Yemen.


Source: Charles Kurzman, “These Numbers Show Why Trump’s Muslim Entry Limit Is Absurd,” Huffington Post, January 26, 2017.

There were also zero fatalities by Muslim extremists from the six countries added to the travel ban in early 2020: Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania.

Source: Charles Kurzman, “The 6 Countries in Trump’s New Travel Ban Pose Little Threat to US National Security,” The Conversation, February 6, 2020.

National origin is among the characteristics listed in the data spreadsheet on Muslim-American involvement with violent extremism, which is available on my website.

For more ideas on teaching the Middle East, please see this piece from several years ago that uses three contemporary crises as teaching tools. Further information for instructors who are interested in the Middle East is available from the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies.