While walking and ruminating, I came up with a satisfactory answer to the question that I posed yesterday. We don't learn about the Middle East in school because we don't learn about geography in school anymore. (You know a discipline is in trouble when its practioners and educators are asking: is geography dead and does geography matter?)
I have a degree in geography which is still amuses me since eschewed the subject in high school. I blame my distain for the subject on my grade 9 geography teacher who we nicknamed Captain Crayola. He rightfully earned the nickname for his penchant for bright red pants and, more damning to me, he made us colour maps in class. You can't expect students to respect a subject when a teacher can't be bothered to even feign respect or enthusiasm for it.
A well-done map is worth more than 1000 words. The map Muslims around the World gave me a good start at understanding the distribution of Shiite vs Sunni muslims, while being a map that still be greatly improved upon.
In Toronto, there is an official enthusiam dedicated to understanding the city as a space and place (see: spacing, uTOpia, Jane Jacobs, sound travels). I would love to see this sort of holistic approach to the places we live extended to the wider world.