Back in March, we spent several days examining Jonathan A. C. Brown, a convert to Islam who runs Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and teaches in Georgetown’s Department of Arab and Islamic Studies. In particular, we paid attention to a February lecture by Brown entitled “Islam and the Problem of Slavery,” in which he did a masterful job of whitewashing his adopted faith. His lecture professed to address the question: “Is there slavery in Islam?” The answer to this question is clear: Yes. But Brown served up one ridiculous qualifier after another.
What, after all, he wondered aloud, do we mean by slavery? The line between a slave and some paid employees, he suggested, is not a clear one. (Ridiculous.) In many ways, people are “slaves” to their spouses and others whom they love. (Also ridiculous.) Slaves in Muslim households have traditionally been treated much better than prisoners on American chain gangs. (Prove it.) Unlike antebellum slavery in the American South, Muslim slavery has never been “racialized.” (An outright lie.) During the days of the Ottoman Empire, many slaves were well-treated and widely respected. (Again, prove it. And even if true, so what?) Brown waxed philosophical: “What does ownership mean?” “[W]hat does freedom mean?” After his talk, Brown entertained questions from the audience, and in reply to one of them he stated quite clearly: “It’s not immoral for one human to own another human.”
Deservedly, Brown’s lecture drew widespread attention and condemnation. But others have rushed to his defense. Enter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, who, writing on March 16 under the aegis of the respected journal Foreign Policy (where she is an assistant editor), presented the reaction to Brown as an example of Islamophobia. The title of her piece was “The Making of Islamophobia Inc.,” and under the title was this summary: “A well-funded network is trying to strip the right to speak away from American Muslims and fanning the politics of fear.” Allen-Ebrahimian argued that while Brown’s work is largely “aimed at making Islamic thought more accessible to general audiences,” his “attempts to explain the faith have made him a hate figure for the American right.” In his February lecture, she claimed, Brown had “addressed slavery in Islam, hoping to combat the idea that Islam could ever condone the subjugation and exploitation of human beings.”
In response, according to Allen-Ebrahimian, right-wingers had come out in force, misrepresenting Brown’s arguments. Brown, she lamented, “is the victim of an increasingly empowered industry of Islamophobia that constricts the space for balanced and open dialogue, sidelining the very Muslims who are doing the most to promote peaceful, orthodox interpretations of Islam.” Allen-Ebrahimian compared these critics of Brown to “the McCarthyites of the 1950s.” Singling out one of those critics, the Islam expert Robert Spencer, Allen-Ebrahimian actually suggested that Spencer’s writings had inspired the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. She also cited such websites as the Daily Caller, Heat Street, and Breitbart, calling them part of “a self-reinforcing online ecosystem that churns out frenzied headlines and constructs alternate online biographies…in which normal American Muslims are painted as Muslim Brotherhood-linked, jihad-loving, rape-defending threats to the American way of life. Brown’s lecture lasted like chum in shark-infested waters.”
Fortunately, Allen-Ebrahimian’s reprehensible, mendacious screed wasn’t allowed to stand. Tune in tomorrow.