Your average American can't find, say, Yemen, on a map and probably forgot where Kuwait was about six months after the first Gulf War. Courtesy of Dr. ap Zylstra in Arts & Humanities Honors, I know a lot more geography but still suffer the standard American history education with regard to the Middle East (nothing later than ancient Sumeria in grade school; one college course that got up to Alexander the Great). The National Geographic Society's 2002 book Cradle & Crucible: History & Faith in the Middle East is a great introduction to geography, history, culture and religion for the region, making it a lot easier to understand whatever treaty, organization, or bombing is in the news at any one moment. (And given the publication date, this is probably why it was written and published, although one could say that about any time in the last 25 years.)
The history portion of the book is an easy-to-read overview of more than nine millennia, getting more detailed as it gets closer to the present, so the reader doesn't feel like they're getting flooded in a procession of ancient empires at the expense of events with a more direct influence on today's problems. Even if you have some knowledge of European history (and the Islamic world's role in preserving knowledge during Europe's Dark Ages), seeing everything from the Crusades to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire from the Arab and Muslim points of view (and remembering that the two are not identical groups) really makes you think of familiar history in a different way. I couldn't read the section on European powers' "mandates" to divide up the former Ottoman territory into new countries after World War I without thinking "Wow, the people actually living there got really screwed over!" -- and that's before Israel as a state even became an issue.
The book ends with a chapter each on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, discussing both the basic theology of each religion and the cultural experience of its practitioners living in the Middle East. (Being a Christian there certainly differs from being one in the United States, not only because of being a minority but because different sects of Christianity are prevalent there. However, the book points out the great differences between Judaism in Israel and Judaism overseas.) Since Islam is the majority in the Middle East, that chapter has the most political and cultural explanation attached, but members of all these faiths have to decide what degree of power religion is to hold in their lives and what power it should or should not hold in their governments. The book does not endorse extremism, but it helps you understand where it's coming from without being a difficult read.