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9 attempts to explain the crazy complexity of the Middle East

(The Washington Post)

The Middle East is complicated.

The religious, social and political cleavages of the region are myriad and hard to succinctly sum up. How do you untangle the Israeli-Palestinian situation, or explain the divide between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam, or square those who favor political Islam with those who favor secular government? Where do other religious and political minorities fit in? And where do big powers outside the region, most obviously the United States, exert influence?

Over the past year, as Syria's civil war dragged on and the Islamic State extremist group became everyone's worst nightmare, the desire to try to explain the Middle East – in a bid to help solve its daunting problems – has grown.

There have been a number of increasingly complicated attempts to illustrate the web of relationships in the Middle East. Below are nine of our favorites.

Last summer, a reader of the Financial Times tried to make sense of the Middle East with a widely shared letter to the editor:

That letter seems to have sparked a trend. Within days, Egyptian blogger The Big Pharaoh made a graphical guide for "complete idiots":

Not long after, Radio Free Europe made its own interactive attempt, which it updated this year (please click through to see the interactive options):

Slate interactive editor Chris Kirk turned the original letter to the editor into a graphic last year. Then, a few months ago, Kirk teamed up with foreign affairs writer Joshua Keating to create an interactive "friendship chart." Again click through to see the interactive aspects of this graphic:

Adam Peck of Think Progress also made a chart, which he and (now former) Think Progress World editor Hayes Brown acknowledged was "terrifying":

One of the most all-encompassing (though perhaps overwhelming) attempts came from Blaise Misztal at the Bipartisan Policy Center. You can take a closer look on the center's Web site:

The Economist recently presented another option: a "mosaic." This particular graphic is useful to gauge how much everyone hates the Islamic State:

Perhaps the most audacious attempt yet is this graphic from British designer David McCandless. The interactive nature of this one is particularly interesting: When you click on an actor, the graphic shifts to show you that actor's specific relationships:

Sometimes things come full circle. After a year of increasingly complicated and ambitious attempts to explain the Middle East's intricate web of relationships, it perhaps seems appropriate that a letter to the editor (perhaps cribbed from elsewhere) would be used to explain the Middle East. This letter ran in the Daily Mail this month: