Bethany Allen: defending a slavery defender

Jonathan A.C. Brown

We saw yesterday how Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, with the surprising (and dismaying) support of Foreign Policy magazine, served up a disingenous apologia in mid March for Jonathan A.C. Brown. Brown, an Islamic convert who is head of the Islamic propaganda factory at Georgetown University known as the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (it’s named for the Saudi royal who bankrolled it), had given a lecture in February in which he made the mistake of telling a little bit too much truth about his adopted religion. Islam, he made clear, thinks slavery is O.K. And so does he. Allen-Ebrahimian’s attempt to rehabilitate Brown consisted of two parts: a wholesale misrepresentation of his lecture (he was actually criticizing slavery, Allen-Ebrahimian insisted, not supporting it) and a thoroughgoing slander of Brown’s critics (who, she explained, are nothing but Islamophobes). She focused especially on Robert Spencer, an informed and articulate critic of Islam and the proprietor of the Jihad Watch website.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and her husband

On March 22, Spencer shot back. “Foreign Policy magazine has published a lurid fantasy,” he wrote, summing up Allen-Ebrahimian’s argument as follows: “a sinister and well-heeled cabal of racist, bigoted ‘Islamophobes’ have smeared a thoughtful, mild-mannered academic, Professor Jonathan Brown of Georgetown University, and opened him up to death threats, as part of a larger endeavor to do nothing less than deprive Muslims of the freedom of speech.” Spencer’s reply: “In reality, just about the opposite is true, and this Foreign Policy article is a sterling example of the victimhood propaganda that the establishment media uses in order to cover for its own and deflect attention away from unpleasant realities of Islam.” Spencer went on:

“Brown’s attempts to explain the faith,” we’re told, “have made him a hate figure for the American right. A flood of articles accuse him of being an apologist for slavery and rape.”

No, his “attempts to explain the faith” didn’t make him into a “hate figure.” His acting quite clearly as an apologist for slavery and rape did that, if he is actually a “hate figure” at all.

Rejecting Allen-Ebrahimian’s absurd claim that Brown had “addressed slavery in Islam, hoping to combat the idea that Islam could ever condone the subjugation and exploitation of human beings,” Spencer pointed out that “Brown did not combat the idea that Islam condoned slavery. He said: ‘I don’t think it’s morally evil to own somebody.’ He also condoned rape of the female non-Muslim war captives: ‘Consent isn’t necessary for lawful sex.’” Spencer linked to a video of Brown’s lecture and encouraged readers to watch it and see for themselves. As for Allen-Ebrahimian’s claim that Brown was the target of some far-right Islamophobic cabal, Spencer noted that “it was a fellow Muslim, Umar Lee, who first blew the whistle on Brown’s apologetics for slavery and rape.”

Spencer also expressed doubt about Allen-Ebrahimian’s claim that Brown had received death threats. (“There are so very many fake anti-Muslim hate crimes, and it is the Left today, not the Right, that is thuggish, hateful and violent. Unless Brown publishes specifics of threats he has received, and reports them to law enforcement, as I myself have done many times with death threats I have received from his coreligionists, his claim warrants extreme skepticism.”)

Robert Spencer

What about Allen-Ebrahimian’s assertion that he and others were out “to marginalize any Muslim who speaks out”? Spencer reminded readers that Brown’s critics were hardly in a position to “marginalize” anybody. After all, it is Brown, not most of his critics, who enjoys a plum job at a respected university and can count on powerful publications such as Foreign Policy and the Washington Post to come to his defense. Also, while Brown’s critics were only responding in a civilized way to a set of barbaric pronouncements by Brown – quoting him verbatim, posting the video of his lecture, and calling him out on the things he had actually said – Allen-Ebrahimian was slickly misrepresenting Brown’s statements and his critics’ statements as well as impugning the latter’s motives.

And of Allen-Ebrahimian’s characterization of Brown as a “normal American Muslim”? No way: “His father-in-law, Sami al-Arian, is a convicted jihad terror leader.” Interesting to know. In her conclusion, Allen-Ebrahimian had been pleased to report that Georgetown University “had remained very supportive” of him. Of course it had! As Spencer neatly put it: “Georgetown gets far too much Saudi money” to do otherwise.

Freedom is slavery: Jonathan Brown

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.

Jonathan A.C. Brown

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.”

Georgetown University

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.

Umar Lee

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).”

Slave children: an image from the Muslim world

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.