The Middle East: The Rise and Fall of an Idea
In May 2021, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Edge Hill University’s Professor James Renton to discuss his work on The Middle East: The Rise and Fall of an Idea’. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your research background, and how you began work on this project?
Professor James Renton: I am a modern historian by training, and when I started working on this project, I was particularly interested in the First World War, the Middle East, and the relationship between the British Empire and the Middle East. I wanted to explore the roots of conflict in the 20th and 21st century through that lens, and I came to this research after competing my doctoral studies as a student in Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. My doctoral supervisor, Professor Michael Berkowitz, is a renowned professor of modern Jewish history; among many influences, Michael fostered my interest in the relationship between culture and nationalism, which I explored in relation to the British Empire, Zionism, and the roots of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Through my postdoctoral research, I wanted to explore how that was part of a much bigger story, and a bigger frame of thinking about the Middle East, race, and global politics. Funding from the AHRC enabled me to do that, and they also encouraged me to think bigger, by asking me to examine the roles of both the British and French empires, as well as that of the League of Nations.
What were some of the core concepts that shaped this project?
I was interested in how we got from a point in which the Ottoman Empire had governed the Middle East for four centuries with relative quiet to a state of systemic conflict and violence between the West and the Middle East, and within the region, from the time of the First World War. This notion of the dysfunctional ‘Middle East’ has existed now for a century, and at the heart of my work was an exploration of how this concept emerged, and the political system built around it.
Can you tell me more about your findings?
The first finding from my research was that the political landscape of the Middle East has to be understood as being intertwined with Europe from at least the time of the First World War, if not before. There was a conflict of visions whereby the West attempted to replace the Ottoman Empire with a system of politics which would maintain Western interests in the Middle East.
The British and French empires arrived in the Middle East at a moment where the whole concept of ‘empire’ was supposed to be being thrown out the window; so the British and French came up with the idea for a new future which would define the area based on the idea of nationhood, while still enabling the British and the French to secure and control the politics of the region.
Racism, which was endemic in colonial policy, led these western powers to believe that people from the Middle East would be happy to accept supervision from the West for the foreseeable future, but of course this was completely incompatible with how the peoples of the region wanted; there were sophisticated political cultures already present in the Middle East. The huge gulf between the two political cultures resulted in a systematic clash of visions for the future, sustained by an unresolveable stalemate between the collective power of the people in the regions, and European imperial power.
This research really became about the study of the history of ideas embedded in political history. The British and the French worked hard to promote the idea of nationhood in the region, and of course once an idea is let loose, you cannot control it. The idea of nationhood was interpreted differently within the Middle East than the Western powers had expected, and while the West continued to create political systems which tried to impose its will, the West was unable to change how the peoples of the region saw themselves.
How have you sought to apply your research to today’s policy context?
Working to communicate my research findings to wider society has always been a passion of mine, and the funding I received from the AHRC really gave me the capacity to do that – a capacity which was further strengthened by my time at the European University Institute. This research project enabled me to become a research fellow at the European University Institute’s Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, which brings together the worlds of scholarship and policymaking.
In Florence, I was able to consider how the framework that I developed during my AHRC project could help us to rethink the Western-Middle East relationship all of the way up to the present. There, I had the opportunity to engage with people from the policy community including the European Commission’s coordinator against anti-Semitism, and to participate in a whole host of policy discussions which I believed could benefit from historical insights.
I remain involved in the European University Institute’s work to this day, and now act as an academic advisor for an impact project which is designed to bring the fruits of research on racism to society, including policy communities: MONITOR Global Intelligence on Racism.
What do you want policymakers to know about your work?
One of the things I emphasize to policy communities is that the intellectual and political framework for how European policymakers interact with the Middle East today dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries, when a preoccupation with subversion, revolution and fanaticism began. My aim it to encourage policy communities to step back and consider whether this way of thinking about a region that is several hundred years old needs a reset.
What are you working on now?
My time with the European University Institute encouraged me to think forwards in time, about the consequences of dysfunctional political systems, the role of racial ideas, and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. I have since worked on research projects which connect these concepts, including a project looking at the relationship between Islamophobia and surveillance.
I have also begun a project which extends the line of inquiry from my AHRC-funded project backwards in time, to the 16th century. While my initial project focused on the First World War era, I have been exploring similar questions beginning from the Reformation and Enlightenment, through to the present. The scope of this research is too big for any one individual, so I have been really engaged with developing collaborative research and developing new ways of thinking about the role of race, and ideas about Jews and Muslims in Europe, on a big geographical and historical scale.