During the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at a bunch of Columbia University professors who’ve specialized in downplaying jihad, apologizing for the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and demonizing Israel and Western civilization. But Columbia isn’t alone. Georgetown University is one of America’s leading centers of Islamic studies. The campus boasts the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, founded in 1993 when the university accepted a $20 million from the eponymous prince, a member of the Saudi royal family. The prince himself personally picked out the Center’s first director, John Esposito, a longtime Saudi flunky, Islamic apologist, and author of several books, including The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? The book’s argument was that Islam represented no threat whatsoever to the West, and that those who maintained otherwise were bigots and fearmongers. The book came out two years before 9/11.
Esposito is no longer director of the Center. It’s now headed up by one Jonathan A.C. Brown. In addition to running the Center, Brown holds a faculty position in Georgetown’s separate Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies (whose faculty includes several people who seem likely candidates for later attention by this site). Brown made headlines recently for a statement that deserves to be recorded here.
Brown, who is 39, is a born and bred American. Raised in Washington, D.C., he converted from Christianity to Islam in 1997. In addition to his position at the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, he’s a professor at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Chair of Islamic Civilization. He is also the author of several books and the editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Law. In short, a leading figure in his profession, certified and credentialed by one of the top universities in the country. What Brown says about Islam, then, should not be viewed as coming from a marginal individual in the field.(He’s even been identified, from time to time, as “Sheikh Jonathan Brown.”)
Which brings us to a 90-minute lecture that Brown gave recently at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Virginia. The lecture was entitled “Islam and the Problem of Slavery,” and Brown prefaced it by saying that, given the sensitivity of the issue, he was reading from a written text and not speaking off the cuff, because when he does the latter, he can engage in hyperbole which “makes sense within the context” but when reported on in print can sound disturbing and spark criticism. Yet the lecture, as it turned out, sparked a great deal of criticism – and with good reason. The whole thing, which can be viewed here and read here, was a first-class example of sophistry and logic-chopping.
Asking himself “Is there slavery in Islam?”, Brown responded by saying that it’s hard to “pin down what we mean by slavery.” He took his audience on an imaginary tour to a prosperous Mecca home in the 1400s, where members of the family were luxuriating together in a comfortable room. One man served them tea; meanwhile, another was being struck by the master of the house. The man serving tea, Brown explained, was technically a slave, but he was the same skin color as his masters (a detail on which Brown places great emphasis), and was gradually buying his freedom back from his master. The man being struck by the master, meanwhile, was the master’s son, whom the slave pitied because he, unlike the slave, would never be able to buy his freedom.
Brown went on to contrast this supposedly benign kind of slavery with a much harsher image: “a crew of dark-skinned youths clearing brush in the hot sun, their legs shackled and all joined by chains. A light skinned man watches over them with a weapon in hand.” What are we looking at? Brown explained: Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio overseeing and a “chain gang” of “juvenile delinquents.” This, Brown argued, is far worse than Islamic slavery.