Middle East studies in the News
Georgetown Professor Under Fire for Statements on Islam and Rape, Slavery [on Jonathan A.C. Brown]
by Stephen Loiaconi
A Georgetown University professor is denying allegations that he endorsed the practice of rape and slavery in Islamic cultures in a recent lecture, but critics claim he is being protected by a liberal establishment that is holding him to a different standard than it does conservatives.
Professor Jonathan A.C. Brown, Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization in the School of Foreign Service and director of the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding, gave the speech on "Islam and the Problem of Slavery" at the International Institute of Islamic Thought on February 7.
He read from the first of three planned essays dissecting the meaning of slavery and how it is understood in Islamic civilizations and took questions from the audience addressing issues like sexual consent and marital rape.
Umar Lee, a Muslim who attended the event, described it in a post on Student Voices as "a 90-minute defense of slavery which included an explicit endorsement of non-consensual sex."
Conservative news sites like the National Review, the Daily Caller, and Jihad Watch seized on quotes from the lecture that could be read as defending slavery, comparing slavery in the Islamic world favorably to slavery in the West, and questioning whether a wife has the autonomy to refuse consent to sex with her husband.
Brown adamantly denies that he expressed any of those views.
Video of the lecture is available on the IIIT YouTube page, though the Q&A session is not included. Lee posted his own recording of the full event on Facebook.
"I don't think it's morally evil to own somebody because we own lots of people all around us and we're owned by people and this obsession about thinking of slavery as property," Brown said at one point, according to the Washington Post.
Much of the lecture was devoted to analyzing definitions of "slavery" and ownership in various historical and societal contexts. Brown questioned whether prisoners working on chain gangs should be considered slaves or whether the total control a parent has over a young child could be called ownership.
He insisted that "the extreme exploitation of human beings' labor and the extreme deprivation of their rights" is a more valuable measure of what is commonly thought of as slavery than the term slavery itself is.
"For most of human history, human beings have not thought of consent as the essential feature of morally correct sexual activity," he said at another point, according to the Post.
Critics have alleged that Brown's focus on the abuse of slaves in western society minimized the mistreatment of slaves in the Arab world. A seeming defense of the prophet Mohammad's ownership of slaves has also been taken as a pro-slavery comment.
At times in the lecture, Brown spoke of slavery, exploitation, and oppression in more negative terms, calling them "reprehensible."
His words have come under fire from within the Muslim community, though. Two Islamic scholars told the Washington Post he minimized slavery and rape and relativized concepts of autonomy and consent to the point where they have no meaning.
Brown can't say he didn't see trouble coming.
At the start of the lecture, he said he would read directly from his paper because he did not want to generate exactly this kind of controversy.
"I know what I do," he said. "I always make some hyperbolic statement that really makes sense in the context but then gets quoted or recorded and then I'm going to get accused of calling for slavery or something like that."
In an interview with the Tab, he acknowledged that answering questions from the audience on the controversial topic may have been a mistake.
"I knew the issue was sensitive," he said. "That's why I read the paper, so as to leave no room for misspeaking. But in Q&A, even if you're very careful, which I tried my best to be, you don't have time to prepare."
Brown said via email Tuesday that the discussion he was trying to start is important because how a culture defines slavery can be used to excuse continued exploitation.
"As a historian, I focus on the past," he explained. "Defining what slavery has been as a transhistorical phenomenon has long challenged historians."
"I never made any judgment about slavery in the lecture," he emphasized, adding that he thinks all modern slavery is morally wrong.
Brown also disputed the characterization of his comments as diminishing historical atrocities.
"At no point did I downplay the severity of rape or slavery," he said. "I'm sorry if my tone was offensive to anyone."
He said his intent in bringing up Mohammad's slave ownership was to show that retroactively judging these behaviors by modern standards can be problematic.
"I was pointing out the moral complexity of condemning as immoral something that Moses, Jesus, Aristotle and the Prophet all condoned," he said.
Brown also dismissed the relevance of the funding of his center by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whose country severely restricts the rights of women.
"Those who endowed our center have no influence on our scholarship or programming," he said.
Brown addressed his critics at length in a post on Muslim Matters apologizing to anyone hurt by his discussion of slavery "too much like a scholar and not enough like a normal person." He stated directly that slavery and rape are wrong and prohibited by Islam, and he accused those on the alt-right of misrepresenting his words.
"My favorite is when they assume my description of some event a thousand years ago is me calling for it today," he wrote. "How are academics supposed to teach history if any discussion is assumed to be advocacy?"
Jihad Watch has surfaced other troubling comments from Brown's Facebook account, such as "as far as I understand it there is no such thing as non-consensual sex with a concubine" and "it's not possible to say that slavery is inherently, absolutely, categorically immoral in all times and places, since it was allowed by the Quran and the Prophet."
Brown, who has since taken down his Facebook page, said in the Muslim Matters post that he was attempting to explain why ISIS believes the rape and sex slavery of Yazidi women is allowed by Islam, not agreeing with them.
"I should have made my point more clearly. In the future, I'll listen to my wife more and be more sensitive in the tone I take," he wrote.
Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, said Brown's comments in the question and answer session may have unartfully implied validation of certain kinds of slavery, but the text of the paper he read from makes a clearer point.
"I think he's trying to give a historical account of the differences in forms of slavery and that is legitimate," Moosa said. Brown is right that slavery as practiced in Muslim societies was different in some ways from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but Moosa noted that some historians believe Muslim slave owners sold slaves to Europeans.
He said it is important to distinguish between how slavery was viewed in the past from how it is seen today.
"If anybody calls for the end of slavery now, does it mean that we are condemning people who held slaves before? The answer is no... We don't stand in judgment of Moses or Jesus or Mohammad for that matter," Moosa said, though he added that Brown's comment about Mohammad's slaves muddied his message.
"That was a poor response," he said. "He could have done better. That was a rhetorical riposte on his side that hurt his cause of trying to elucidate different kinds of slavery."
Moosa said there should be no debate that sensible modern Muslims oppose slavery and rape. He pointed to a letter endorsed by hundreds of Islamic scholars to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stating that slavery, torture, the abuse of women, and other behavior perpetrated by the terror group is forbidden in Islam.
Brown's conservative critics don't buy his defense, and they say he is being afforded latitude that would be denied a right-leaning academic who expressed similar thoughts.
"Imagine if a professor in academia began to teach that actually slavery in America in the past, that this was actually a good thing, that this is to be sanctioned, that this was legitimate, and he is supporting and justifying this under certain arguments," said Jamie Glazov, managing editor of FrontPage Magazine, in a YouTube video. "Imagine the outcry that would happen over this."
Such outrage would be justified, he said, because those views would be abhorrent. He believes Brown is being spared from that blowback because of an "alliance between the left and Islamic supremacism."
"Don't wait for any leftist demonstrations, don't wait for any feminist demonstrations against Professor Jonathan Brown," he said.
Jihad Watch Director Robert Spencer also sees a double standard.
"This has not been a bigger controversy because Jonathan A. C. Brown is a Leftist who supports all the fashionable causes," he said Tuesday. "He is, moreover, a Muslim: for the establishment media that means he is part of an oppressed class that warrants special consideration. If he were a conservative, he would long since have been fired, and the media firestorm would still be raging."
In an article on his site criticizing the Post's coverage of the controversy, Spencer called the portrayal of Brown's lecture as historical "far-fetched."
"He was speaking about Islamic law and Muhammad's example as normative," he wrote. "No believing Muslim believes that Muhammad's example is a relic of history; it's valid for all time."
Moosa disagreed, arguing that modern Muslims are not required to follow everything that was done in Mohammad's time and that slavery should be seen as unthinkable today. He also questioned the motives of some of Brown's critics.
"I think there's a whole industry in the United States...that are constantly trying to foment hate against Muslims and they want to stop what they call the Islamization," he said.
However, in his Student Voices post, Umar Lee made a similar point to Glazov and Spencer, saying he was "deeply troubled" that Brown described Arab slavery "in glowing terms," and he does not believe a college would tolerate such "dishonest North Korean style of propaganda" from a professor of another faith.
"A Catholic Priest at Georgetown would be fired immediately if he defended the brutality of Catholic-led slavery in Latin America or defended rape," Lee wrote. "The same would be true of a rabbi at Yeshiva University. So, why as Muslims should we tolerate and invite someone like Brown to speak and why is Brown hideously exploiting Georgetown's commitment to be inclusive?"
For its part, Georgetown is standing by Brown's right to express his views while making it clear that he does not speak for the university.
"As an academic community, we are committed to academic freedom and the ability of faculty members to freely pursue their research and express their analysis," Senior Director for Strategic Communications Rachel Pugh said in a statement. "While we will defend this academic freedom, the body of a faculty member's work does not necessarily represent the University's position. The views of any faculty member are their own and not the views of the University."
The school has taken this position on controversial faculty members before. Pugh issued a nearly identical statement in December when Professor Christine Fair derided a Muslim supporter of President Donald Trump in a series of angry, vulgar social media postings. The university also cited academic freedom in declining to criticize a professor who appeared to endorse the assassination of President Barack Obama in 2014.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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