Few of us appreciate how historically embedded our attitudes, views and understanding of family origin and religion are – not just over decades but hundreds of years. They continue to shape Western political discourse and policy, sometimes inadvertently creating instability and undermining those democratic principles that the West holds so dear.
Professor of History at Edge Hill University, James Renton, is using his ground-breaking research on antisemitism and Islamophobia – including their commonly unacknowledged shared history – to redefine our understanding of these racisms.
Through fresh eyes and evidence, he is arming policy-makers, politicians, and the public with the knowledge to understand how historic misconceptions have fuelled instability and created hostile environments, prompting reactions from affected groups and the conditions for antisemitism and Islamophobia to thrive.
The cultural and political relevance of his work has helped him secure multiple influential platforms to further and share his research. These have included numerous media interviews, a policy-informing European Fellowship and a role as key academic adviser to online magazine MONITOR Global Intelligence on Racism – the only project in the world dedicated to bringing research on the topic out of academia into general discussion.
Professor Renton’s fresh perspective on the long-term instability in Israel-Palestine gave a welcome, much-covered new angle to the issue in 2017 on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration – the statement of British support for establishing a national home for the Jewish people in the region.
And Professor Renton’s work on Islamophobia has been of keen interest to UK parliamentarians. He briefed the Shadow Home Secretary in 2015, evidencing his concerns over a global surveillance order in response to the Islamic State threat. This included the UK government’s proposals to give more powers to security services – a move he deemed more akin to dictatorships than democracies.
Edge Hill has supported Professor Renton’s research in a number of ways, including the establishment of the University’s International Centre on Racism, which he co-directs.
Antisemitism and Islamophobia – a little-known shared space
Professor Renton believes that educating about the shared history of persecution of Jews and Muslims can help break down polarisation and explain racially-bound approaches in national and international politics.
He highlights similarities in the rhetoric condemning Jews in 1930s Germany and the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ narrative led by Western leaders that vilified Muslims. However, the synergies go much further back.
Jews and Muslims were jointly expelled from Iberia in the 15th Century – both ‘outsiders’ from Christianity. They had a shared linguistic and racial heritage and worshiped one God, if by a different name.
Following the end of Europe’s holy war in the 17th Century and the separation of state and religion, the idea of rebellion and religious fanaticism – where God desires people to use violence to seize power – was no longer deemed relevant to Christianity. Fanaticism instead became synonymous with Judaism and Islam – the outside threat to Christianity. This idea of fanaticism still holds strong in Western politics and its ‘Islamic extremism’ narrative today.
A fresh take on the historical British approach to Palestine
On the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 2017, Professor Renton was in high demand from media outlets and documentary makers across Europe and the Middle East. From BBC Worldwide to Al Jazeera, they were all keen to have a fresh perspective on a much-talked-about issue.
Professor Renton’s new focus was on the narrative that had accompanied the British empire’s occupation of Palestine. The British described it both as a ‘beginning of a new era for the Jewish nation‘ and ‘the awakening for the Arab nation’ – something that seemed strangely unproblematic at the time. How could this be when history showed the attitudes behind these broad-brush statements to be a critical contributor to the beginning of the conflict for control of Palestine?
Professor Renton’s research suggests that the British imperialistic approach was bound up in perceptions of race – that Palestinian Arabs didn’t constitute a ‘people.’ They were instead viewed by the imperial establishment as a ‘backward’ mismatch of groups unlikely to strive for independence.
The British considered Jews to be more civilised and the true inhabitants of the Holy Land (after originally being expelled by the Romans). But they were still viewed as underdeveloped – a people who couldn’t possibly hope for genuine independence. It reflected the thinking formed in academia and politics over hundreds of years – that political freedom was synonymous with civilisation.
Professor Renton’s impactful meeting with the Shadow Home Secretary, where he explained his research-based concerns on the government’s proposed Investigatory Powers Bill and Extremism Bill, buoyed him to explore where else he could influence policy-making.
He successfully applied for a much-coveted fellowship at the European University Institute’s Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS) – an institution focused on bringing together academics and policy-makers.
During his time at RSCAS, he had the opportunity to meet with the European Commission’s coordinators on counter-terrorism and antisemitism. His research contributed to the EU Council’s declaration on antisemitism in 2018, particularly the encouragement of Member States to adopt a holistic strategy to prevent and fight antisemitism as part of their broader strategies in preventing racism and xenophobia.
Closer to home, Professor Renton’s scholarship has featured in influential policy reports, such as the Runnymede Trust’s 2017 report on Islamophobia in the UK.
Racism research goes mainstream
Professor Renton is most proud of his work for the online magazine MONITOR Global Intelligence on Racism which launched in 2017. It remains the only global resource dedicated to taking academic research on the issue out of libraries and academic journals and putting it in front of a general audience. It aims to prompt debate and affect real-world change.
The magazine’s audience is vast and varied, from academics worldwide to decision-makers, such as the Mayor of the Polish city Wroclaw. He used the platform to underscore his commitment to welcoming immigrants.
And a number MONITOR’s articles have gone mainstream, such as one encouraging readers to take a ‘white privilege’ test.
Professor Renton’s advisory role has seen him work to extend the magazine’s global network of contributors, lead podcast interviews and support the production of feature series. Topics have included Covid-19 and race, and Black Lives Matter.
Professor Renton and the Editor, Monica Gonzalez-Correa, also use the magazine to further research as well as communicate it. Much is undertaken through conferences, such as one in 2019 on social media and antisemitism. The next event will consider racism and the persecution of women.
“An important outcome of Renton’s research on antisemitism and other racisms over the longue durée lies in his key role as academic advisor at MONITOR… These publications have brought the fruits of previously unknown research insights on the history of antisemitism to thousands… extending public understanding of antisemitism’s history, and its relationship with other racisms.”European Commission Coordinator for Combating Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life
Next steps for racism research
Professor Renton acknowledges that awareness of what constitutes racism is growing, and action is being taken, particularly by corporations and institutions looking at the unspoken and structural racism within. But he is conscious that action provokes a reaction. This can be seen in the rise of European far-right politicians and the backlash against a perceived ‘woke’ culture. As a result, there is no shortage of research topics for him to pursue.
One area Professor Renton is keen to investigate is the role of racial ideas in the West’s unpreparedness for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Building on his previous research into Islamophobia, he believes that the crisis may have been exacerbated by a post-Cold War global preoccupation with non-state threats such as Islamic State.
Our research means that:
- Islamophobia, antisemitism and other racisms continue to be highlighted as very real, current issues that need to be addressed.
- Policy-makers have access to evidence-based academic research to develop policies that tackle racisms head-on.
- Everybody can easily access expert, thought-provoking research on racisms to prompt discussion, debate and real-world change.
Find out more about James Renton’s research by viewing their profile on Pure:Professor James Renton