The historical roots of the world’s ‘racism emergency’

Written by Henry Goodwin on . Posted in Current features, Current profiles, Features, Profiles

James Renton believes that the world’s racism problem has reached a ‘state of emergency’. ‘From Myanmar to Charlottesville,’ he explains, ‘there is something particularly troubling about the global extent of the racism emergency that the world faces.’


James Renton is a Visiting Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.

Renton is doing his best to try and change the tide. The only historian at the Schuman Centre, he is a busy man. He has recently co-edited a book exploring the relationship between antisemitism and Islamophobia, and is academic advisor to Monitor Racism – the Schuman’s new online platform and magazine, launching in January.

When EUI Times caught up with Renton, in the sun-dappled gardens of Villa Schifanoia in mid-October, he was even busier than usual. A preeminent historian of the fraught and complex relationship between the West and the Middle East, journalists have been keen to hear his take on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the infamous letter which cleared the way for the establishment of ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine. ‘I’m used to having microphones put in my face by now,’ he quips.

Bloody Balfour

The centenary of Lord Arthur Balfour’s notorious sixty-seven word declaration of Britain’s support for Zionism has sparked a firestorm of controversy over the letter’s rights and wrongs, and the way in which it should be remembered. Many, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, have implored Britain to apologise for ‘Bloody Balfour’, as the foreign secretary was nicknamed by some contemporaries, citing the letter as prompting the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from the newly-formed state of Israel.

Renton agrees that Britain should apologise, not for supporting Zionism, but for so catastrophically misunderstanding the impact that the declaration would eventually have. An apology could also be the first step towards Britain and the West ‘rethinking’ its relationship to the Israel-Palestine conflict. ‘There’s a lingering idea in the West that yes, we contributed to this conflict, but it’s not our problem.’ If Western states could understand their ongoing contribution to the conflict, it might prompt a recalculation of their policy in the region. That, he suggests, ‘would be the ideal way to commemorate Balfour.’

With a long-lensed wistfulness unique to historians, Renton argues that governments must look back, even beyond Balfour, to plot a path forward in the Middle East. In this vein, he believes that another major milestone should be discussed hand-in-hand with the Balfour centenary: the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.

1917 was ‘a crisis moment,’ he explains. ‘When the British cabinet decided to support Zionism, a major reason was because they believed it would be useful as a means to enlist Jewish power for Britain and the Allies’ in the First World War. The US had just entered the war, but mobilising them to their full capacity was no easy task. In Russia, the March Revolution had raised the spectre of Moscow withdrawing from the war. ‘It just so happened,’ Renton adds, ‘that these were two of the key Jewish populations in the world.’

That Britain believed it could sway a nebulous global network of Jewish power in its favour tapped into age-old antisemitic notions about Jewish influence, notions which can also be found in the work of the father of the Reformation, Martin Luther. In 1543, Luther published The Jews and Their Lies, in which he discusses Jews, who he saw as being in league with the devil, as desiring to take over the world. Muslims, who Luther characterises as ‘good Jews’, fell into the same bracket.

‘I think that provides a lot of food for thought,’ Renton reflects. Not only was antisemitism significant in the Balfour Declaration, but ideas critical to its formation are visible in the 16th century. ‘That doesn’t bode well for Europe in the fight against antisemitism and Islamophobia, because it’s unpacking ideas that have existed for centuries, and are so deeply rooted in the fabric of Europe.’

Big Brother, 2017

The interconnectivity between Islamophobia and antisemitism is the subject of a new volume which Renton has co-edited, Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: A Shared Story?, which examines the affinity between the two racisms from the Crusades until the 21st century.

The origins of this relationship, the historian contends, is the relationship between politics and theology. For Christian theologians in the Middle Ages, Christianity, Judaism and Islam were ‘competitor monotheisms’. Rather than ‘alien religions’, removed from Christianity, Judaism and Islam were perceived as heretical – ‘corruptions of the truth’. It is that, the fact that both religions were interpreted as versions of the truth, which makes Islam and Judaism ‘so dangerous for Christianity’.


A copy of Lord Arthur Balfour’s original letter to Lord Rothschild, confirming Britain’s support for Zionism.

A Shared Story? does not argue that Islamophobia and antisemitism are the same – far from it. Instead, Renton suggests, there is a chasm between how Jews and Muslims are conceived in the West compared to any other minority. Whereas most minorities experience ‘consistent patterns of othering,’ it is rarely with the same voracity as that endured by Jews or Muslims.

There are parallels, he points out, between early modern fears about a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, as elaborated by the likes of Luther, and ideas about political Islam in the present-day West. ‘It ultimately boils down to an imagined struggle for power in the world,’ Renton says. ‘That’s what makes them both so threatening to the West, and what makes it different from how other minorities are seen and treated.’

Renton’s book begins in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in 2015, in which two gunmen stormed the French satirical newspaper in Paris, killing eleven and, two days later, an associate of the initial gunmen attacked a Jewish supermarket in the city’s suburbs, killing four Jewish people. He considers it as having a ‘transformative effect’ on the EU and its member-states.

‘I think Charlie Hebdo was a catalyst for all sorts of currents of thinking which had been unfolding since the beginning of the War on Terror,’ he explains. Until that point, the ‘enemies of the West’, as he puts it, were ‘out there in the world’. After Charlie Hebdo, they were at home. Ever since, dealing with homegrown terrorism has been arguably the central objective of European governance.

The answer has often been to increase surveillance. Since the terror attacks across Paris in November 2015, France remained in the longest-running state of emergency in the country’s history. According to the Financial Times, 439 French citizens – the majority of them Muslims – have been placed under house arrest during this period, without significant judicial involvement. Well in excess of 4,000 mosques and homes have been raided, and 16 mosques forced to close.

French President Emmanuel Macron, having campaigned on a plan to let the emergency decrees expire, recently ended the state of emergency. Nonetheless, aspects of it have been written into ordinary state law. That, critics say, represents a grave infringement on civil liberties. Amnesty International responded that Macron’s legislation will ‘trample’ the rights that he was ‘elected to uphold’.

In the UK too, the Counter Terrorism and Security Act (introduced in 2015), gave the state broad powers of surveillance. It is now a legal obligation for everybody working in the public sector who deals with potentially vulnerable members of the population – like teachers, doctors or social workers – to monitor the people they interact with for signs of radicalisation and extremism.

It is a Europe-wide trend. In Germany, Poland, Hungary, Belgium and the Netherlands, among others, mass surveillance powers have been granted or expanded in recent years. It is, according to Amnesty, an ‘Orwellian’ development.


Mourners gather for a vigil in Toulon to remember the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in 2015.

‘It’s getting to the point where we need to ask what this means for the liberal democratic state that traditionally defines the West,’ Renton tells EUI Times. ‘Going back to the Enlightenment, the whole point was that you have three branches of state in the legislature, executive and judiciary which balance each other.’ Now, however, the nature of the surveillance state appears to be sidelining the role of the judiciary in a number of EU states.

Monitoring racism

Charlie Hebdo was also significant in illustrating the differences in the way that West governments treat antisemitism and Islamophobia. After Charlie Hebdo, then-President François Hollande announced a tranche of funding to tackle antisemitism and racism, without any specific mention of Islamophobia. That, Renton suggests, highlights how differently the two racisms are conceived.

‘Fighting antisemitism is part of the armoury of being Western, and is enlisted by the West as a signifier of how civilised it is. Islamophobia does not fit into that narrative.’ One of the clearest reasons for that divergence, he argues, is the fact that the West is involved in a war on terrorism which, despite many governments’ reluctance to label it as such, is effectively a war on Islamic terror. That ‘muddies the waters,’ he says.

‘How do you deal with Muslim racism, when a lot of Western states target Muslims as the enemy? How can you have a concerted effort against racism which is directed towards a population that the state itself has identified as a potential enemy?’

The gulf between theory and practice in Western governments’ approach to Islamophobia, and arguably racism more widely, has inspired a new collective project that Renton is working on as an academic advisor, which will be housed at the Schuman Centre. Edited by journalist Monica Gonzalez Correa, Monitor Racism is an online platform and magazine that will collate information on racism and how to fight it.

‘There is vast archival intelligence on racism, but it’s all locked away in academic journals and monographs that nobody outside of academia would ever wish to encounter,’ he explains. ‘The whole point of Monitor Racism is to bring that intelligence to policymakers.’ The platform will launch in January and, Renton says, will be ‘the only global hub that gathers expertise on racism and anti-racism.’

To heal the current ‘racism emergency’, such initiatives are sorely needed.

James Renton is a Visiting Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. His new book, ‘Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: A Shared Story?’ (co-edited with Ben Gidley), is available now.

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