James Renton: Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are Dynamic Phenomena

by Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik e.V. – My interview with Dr James Renton
Dr James Renton is Reader in History at Edge Hill University, UK,
and co-editor, with Ben Gidley, of Antisemitism
and Islamophobia: A Shared Story?
, which is forthcoming with
Palgrave Macmillan.

Milena Rampoldi: How would you define anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Which
are the common aspects, what are the main differences between them?
James Renton: At base, we can use the terms anti-Semitism and Islamophobia
as straight forward labels for anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms. But can we
offer a fixed definition of these two fields of prejudice? The histories of the
terms themselves tell us something of value in this connection. Within these
stories, we find helpful insights into the complex relationship between the
two: their differences, similarities, and, significantly, connections. It is
essential, however, that any such discussion of this subject acknowledges that
European ideas about Jews and Muslims, about Judaism and Islam, do not stand
still. They are dynamic, like any field of human thought. We must not treat
them as fixed prejudices that operate outside of time, or indeed place. Certainly,
both racisms possess very powerful continuities, which are hugely important.
But the interplay between these underlying structures of thought and the
dynamism of cultural, political, social, and economic change must not be
The word ‘anti-Semitism’ was invoked at the end of the nineteenth century,
at a time in which the pseudo-science of race predominated in European
political thought. Jews and Judaism were at the forefront of Europe’s imagined
political problems in this period— or Questions
to use the terminology of the day— that demanded solutions. The process of
Jewish emancipation (incomplete as it was) in central and Western Europe became
a focus of ire in these zones as societies grappled with profound economic and
political crises and transformation: from depression and warfare in Europe
(particularly Germany’s defeat of France in 1870) to concomitant escalating
conflict between European imperial states over resources and territory in
Africa and Asia.     
‘Islamophobia’ by contrast was widely adopted as a term in European
political discourse at the end of the twentieth century. It belongs principally
to the Europe of post-colonial migration, multi-culturalism, and the project of
European unity. It has come into its own as a named racism at a time when
secularism is no longer the assumed framework of European and global politics;
and when the struggle for power in Islamic lands in Western Asia and Northern
Africa lies at the centre of Europe and the West’s global politics. In
addition, the naming of ‘Islamophobia’ from the end of the 1990s coincided with
Europe’s adoption of the fight against ‘anti-Semitism’ as a defining feature of
what it means to be civilised and a part of the global West.
The terms belong to two very different histories, therefore. Nonetheless,
the origins of the word ‘anti-Semitism’ reveals that European prejudices towards
Jews and Muslims were indeed connected, even if they were not, and are not, the
same. The German-speaking Jew-haters of the fin-de-siècle who organised
themselves as a political movement were fighting against what they called
Semites and Semitism. This terminology is of great importance for our
understanding of the evolution of anti-Jewish prejudice, not least because those
behind the anti-Jewish project thought it was. They proudly named themselves ‘anti-Semites’,
and mobilised behind this banner.
The idea of the Semite, which European Bible and Orientalist scholars began
to discuss at the end of the eighteenth century, posited that Jews and Arabs
belonged to a single race. This idea was an Enlightenment version of the
Biblical story of human origins, in which the descendants of Abraham—the
children of Israel and Ishmael— came from the same source: Noah’s son, Shem (or
transliterated into Latin, Sem). The Semitic notion, as popularised by French
scholar Ernest Renan from the middle of the nineteenth century, stipulated that
the culture of the Jew and the Arab
(a synonym for Muslim) was the product of the nomadic life of Western Asia.
This environment produced, the idea went, a fanaticism and moral simplicity
that led to the foundation of Abrahamic monotheism, which was then
universalized and perfected by Christianity.
Evidently, therefore, the history of the Semitic idea reveals a connection
between the European conception of the Jew and the Muslim/Arab. This
relationship did not start at the end of the eighteenth century, however; we
can trace it back to medieval times and early Islam. We can go even further: it
arguably derived from the Christian European tradition of seeing Jews and
Judaism as being intrinsically bound to the lands of the Bible and the Orient,
to use the medieval terminology. This Orientalizing of Jews as Semites explains,
in part, why the term was seized upon by the self-proclaimed ‘anti-Semitic’
movement in Europe: Jews were not European, they belonged to West Asia.
From this vantage point of connection, we can see similarities in core
characteristics attributed to Jews and Muslims/Arabs in European thought:
fanaticism, obscurantism, conspiracy, moral separation from Europe. These
kernels of prejudice have persisted across time, despite the dynamic changes in
how they have been imagined.
But for all of the similarities and connections, fundamental differences
separate European traditions of thought concerning Jews and Muslims. Renan
argued that Judaism is religion; and
he was not alone. For Christian Europe, Jews and Judaism play(ed) a central
role in their theology that has no parallel; Islam is not integral to Christian
theology and its understanding of the past, present, and future. The
significance and closeness of Jews and Judaism in Christian culture sets them
apart from Christian notions of Muslims and Islam. There is no significant European
concept of an Islamo-Christian tradition, for all of the efforts by individuals
to highlight the shared pasts of Arab lands and Europe. And secular Europe’s
inner Christian self, as Marx already understood it in the 1840s, means that a
fundamental distinction remains between the European-Jewish relationship, and
that with Muslims. Islam is necessarily and perpetually more distant. And when Islam
becomes physically closer to Europe, to the point of existing on a significant
scale within Europe, the power of this distance, and dissonance, has magnified
exponentially, and produces a particular form of Christian anxiety. The trigger
that translates prejudice into action is a wider political crisis. In this
case, it is Europe’s so-called War on Terror. 
MR: Is there a relation between Zionism and Islamophobia in our time?
JR: From its inception, the
Jewish nationalist movement centred on the reconstitution of the Jewish nation
in Israel-Palestine —Zionism— possessed a multiplicity of voices. It was also a
movement with important centres across the geographical, class, and political
spectrum of the Jewish diaspora, even though it was in the minority and faced
sharped opposition within Jewish communities until the Second World War. In
addition to this diversity, we cannot speak of a fixed Zionist ideology, of
a’Zionism‘, distinct from the adherents of the political movement. Zionism is
not a corporeal entity—a living being—it is, rather, an amorphous set of ideas,
like any political ideology, that is shaped by people. Ultimately, we have to
speak of the beliefs, and crucially, the actions, of those who declare
themselves as Zionists rather than ‚Zionism‘. With this in mind, I would
struggle to associate Zionism with a specific attitude towards Islam, whether
we speak of a century ago or today. Certainly, though, the original European
Zionists were products of the societies from whence they came, and shared
European conceptions of Islam and Muslims. The significance of the broader
intellectual context remains today: Zionists, in all their diversity, will share
dominant currents of thought in what is a global society. For those who
identify as part of the West and are engaged in the War on Terror, they will share
the Islamophobia that attends that conflict. 
MR: How to fight Islamophobia in Europe today, and at which levels should
we act?
JR: Islamophobia can only be fought effectively by the power of the state,
and the elites to which it belongs. We can see the tremendous impact that can
be achieved against prejudice when we look to antisemitism. Since the states
and political institutions of the West made antisemitism a prominent target
from the 1990s, there has been a significant change. This is not to say that
antisemitism has been eradicated—far from it! But the pronouncement of
anti-Jewish hatred and stereotypes has been pushed beyond the bounds of acceptability
in the public sphere. Even the political parties of the West European Far-Right
have ceased to target Jews, and present the Jew as a victim who requires
solidarity if not protection (for the Far-Right the shared enemy is the
 The most powerful element in this marginalisation
of antisemitism was the absorption of the fight against Jew-hatred into the
idea of the West. The war on antisemitism is not a cause endorsed by the West;
it has become a part of the West. The problem, of course, is that Jews then become
a target for opponents of the West and the Western state.
Nonetheless, this shift in a short space of time demonstrates the power of
the state when it comes to the authority of ideas and prejudice. The principal
challenge for opponents of Islamophobia is to influence Europe’s policymakers.
Ultimately, any such exercise depends on the shifting sands of local, regional,
and global politics. But I firmly believe that the struggle against prejudice
in Europe needs to target the corridors of power.
MR: ProMosaik e.V. is convinced that in the end the victim of Islamophobia
is the Muslim woman, the west wants to save from Islam. What do you think about
JR: Islamophobia does not target
a particular gender over and above another: all Muslims are potential victims.
Certainly, important aspects of the thought apparatus of Islamophobia are
defined by gender and manifest themselves through gender: the notion of the
sexual predator male, unrestrained by civilized morality; and the haunting
figure of the powerless, oppressed and even mutilated female. And in the
practices and structures of Islamophobia, genders are affected in different
ways— to an extent. The most obvious gender difference in the experience of
being a victim of Islamophobia is the Muslim woman who wears a veil or, as as
we now see in France, a head scarf— both in how states and society work to
prevent this act, and the consequences of being visibly marked as a Muslim. But
despite such distinctions, all Muslims are potential targets: of surveillance
and suspicion, hate speech and violence, discrimination.
MR: Which are the main economic, and geopolitical reasons of the Islamic
State, the war on terror, and the (mis)use of Islam and/or the ignorance and/or
hiding by all fronts?
JR: The connections between
capital and western empire, as with most systems of state power today, are, of
course, profound. The needs and influence of capital are central to the power
of the elites of the global West. However, since 9/11 the shape and direction
of the West’s political apparatus— the constellation of state power and international
institutions— have not derived from economic imperatives. They have, rather,
been directed by two other forces, which are not entirely separate from
capital, but are distinct: culture and political conflict.
The cultural dimension is the
European tradition of thought regarding the relationship between the Western
self and the Muslim enemy. This intellectual framework has wielded a determining
influence on the global war. But for all of the significance of ideas, they
alone do not explain our subject. European thought concerning the Muslim enemy
was taken to the centre of the structures of world power by the evolution of a
very specific form of political
conflict—of a struggle for power, and specifically, sovereignty.
It would be a grave error to
judge that this moment of conflict began with the attacks on the United States
in 2001. Nor would it be correct to conclude that this is a war of religion,
despite the determining impact of European Christian thought on Islamophobia,
and the religious ideologies of movements such as Islamic State.
The destruction of the World
Trade Center signalled the opening of what is the latest chapter in a war for
sovereignty in Arab lands that commenced in the First World War, following the
destruction of the Ottoman empire. It is no accident that the first media act
of Islamic State as a self-declared caliphate in June 2014 was to publish the
video‘The End of Sykes-Picot‘. The Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 was a
secret plan agreed by the British and French governments for controlling
Western Asia after the war. The Bolsheviks discovered and published the
agreement after the revolution, and the name‘Sykes-Picot‘ became short-hand in
Western Asia for Western efforts to shape and dominate the region.
In the First World War, global
politics changed fundamentally. The principle of national sovereignty began to
replace empire as the acceptable basis for governance and the international
order. To fit with the new norm, the British and French empires claimed that
they were fighting in Western Asia for a new epoch of national freedom. But
these powers could not abandon their strategic interests in the region:
Britain‘s gateways for imperial communications—the Suez Canal and the Persian
Gulf, and France’s sense of entitlement over present-day Syria, Lebanon, and
even the Holy Land. Nor could these imperial elites conceive that such zones
could be safe in Arab hands.
The strategic importance of
Western Asia for the West, beyond Britain and France, only increased over time,
and the fear of the Arab did not dissipate. But the promise of the era of
sovereignty led to a revolution in West Asian political cultures: the eruption
of a new desire and expectation of independence that has fed a range of
political movements over the last century. Neither the Western control imperative
nor the West Asian fight for sovereignty have gone away, and the dissonance
between the two projects resulted in a century of conflict. It is within this
100 year colonial and post-colonial war that we must place the War on Terror, its
world system, and its enemies.       
MR: How can historical studies contribute today to fight anti-semitism and
islamophobia in the West?
JR: Historians can and should engage with civil society,
which can benefit from our findings. This is especially important when it comes
to subjects that are directly relevant to urgent challenges in the contemporary
human story, such as racism. Historians could have a significant impact on the
development of projects to bridge gaps between communities and overcome
prejudice. To advance the cause of fighting prejudice on a significant scale, I
think that historians of Islamophobia, in particular, need to begin a dialogue
with policymakers in the European Union and Member States. To make this happen,
historians require support from, and collaboration with, those non-government
organisations and others who are working against racism who already connect
with the policy world.