Yesterday we met Jonathan A.C. Brown, the head of Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. A 1977 convert to Islam, he’s been fiercely defending it ever since. Never before, however, has he made headlines like the ones he made recently after giving a lecture about Muslim slavery. His main point was to contrast that institution, which he painted as benign, to slavery in the pre-Civil War American South, which he fully recognized as malignant.
In his lecture, Brown served up a flurry of statements – supposedly statements of historical fact – that were plainly designed to muddy the waters about the subject at hand. At certain times and in certain places during the history of Islam, he argued, certain people were “technically slaves” but lived very well. Indeed, he insisted that in the Ottoman Empire, some people who were categorized as slaves wielded considerable power and enjoyed great respect. A slave in Mecca around the year 1400 “received no pay from his master, but the master paid for his food, clothes and shelter,” and “in this regard the slave was no different from the master’s own son.” (This could, of course, be said about most slaves in most places at most times in history.) Moreover, factory owners under Ottoman rule “preferred using slave labor because slaves would not leave for seasonal work elsewhere,” and those slaves were thus “more like wage laborers working for a set term in a master/servant relationship than slaves.”
All of which, Brown claimed, raises such questions as these: “Is it the label slave that matters or the reality…behind it?” “What does ownership mean?” “[W]hat does freedom mean?… Almost no human being is free of dependence on others and on society as a whole.” Everything, you see, is relative: “ownership, freedom and exploitation come in shades of gray. They exist on spectrums.” Any academic who dared to say such a thing about slavery in the antebellum American South would, we suspect, not keep his job for long.
Brown brought up the Muslim sex-grooming ring in Rotherham, England, whose members held hundreds of infidel girls as sex slaves. His claim: “the majority of offenders were actually white men.” This is sheer fiction – a bald-faced lie. He also maintained that “the legal right to own other human beings was abolished globally” decades ago. This, too, is a lie: slavery persists in many countries today, predominantly Muslim ones.
It’s no wonder Brown’s lecture made headlines – and caused outrage. One student who attended it, Umar Lee, wrote the next day that he had been shocked to hear Brown describing Muslim slavery “in glowing terms.” Commented Lee: “I thought the Muslim community was done with this dishonest North Korean style of propaganda.” While focusing on “the injustices of prison labor in America and a myriad of other social-ills,” Lee noted, Brown had avoided mention “of the rampant abuse of workers in the Gulf, the thousands of workers in the Gulf dying on construction sites, the South Asian child camel-jockeys imported into the United Arab Emirates to race camels under harsh conditions, or the horrific conditions of prisoners in the Muslim World (the latest news being 13,000 prisoners executed in Syria).”
Lee disputed one after another of Brown’s assertions: the idea that Muslim slavery “wasn’t racialized” is absurd; so is the claim that it was “kinder and gentler” than American slavery. Nowhere in Brown’s lecture did he mention “kidnappings, harems, armies of eunuchs, and other atrocities.” Lee and other members of the audience asked Brown questions after the lecture, in reply to which Brown offered even more sensational claims than he had during the prepared talk: “It’s not immoral for one human to own another human,” Brown remarked, explaining that “being an employee is basically the same as being a slave” and comparing slavery to marriage “because his wife held rights over him.” As for the widespread phenomenon of slave owners raping slaves, Brown told Lee that “[c]onsent isn’t necessary for lawful sex,” his reasoning being that “consent is a modern Western concept.” And when one member of audience apparently challenged him just a bit too much, Brown shot back with the indisputable fact that Muhammed himself had owned slaves. “Are you more morally mature than the Prophet of God?” Brown asked. “No, you’re not.” Well, that settled that.
Pretty outrageous. But, as we noted, this slavery lecture was far from the first time Brown had made public statements deserving of outrage. We’ll look at some of those tomorrow.