On February 7, Georgetown University’s Professor Jonathan Brown used his clout as an endowed chair to deliver a defense of the Islamic practice of slavery, which he claimed to be entirely different than slavery in the West.
Brown pointed out some interesting facts, such as the high position of “privileged Sultanic slaves” at certain points in Turkey. But they were obscured by his attempt to qualify — and even defend — the ownership of other humans that was rampant in the Islamic world just as it was in the West. Brown even went as far as defending “non-consensual sex” that most would now term “sex-slavery,” because it was not expressly forbidden through much of Islamic history. The full lecture is embedded below:
A Muslim student who attended, Umar Lee, was so incensed about what he called a “90 minute defense of slavery” that he wrote about it on the site Student Voices:
While the lecture was supposed to be about slavery in Islam, Brown spent the majority of the lecture talking about slavery in the United States, the United Kingdom and China. When discussing slavery in these societies Brown painted slavery as brutal and violent (which it certainly was). When the conversation would briefly flip to historic slavery in the Arab and Turkish World, slavery was described by Brown in glowing terms. Indeed, according to Brown, slaves in the Muslim World lived a pretty good life.
I thought the Muslim community was done with this dishonest North Korean style of propaganda. Obviously not. Brown went on to discuss the injustices of prison labor in America and a myriad of other social-ills. Absent from his talk (until challenged) was any recognition 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 had no prior experience with Brown and his biased approach to Islamic history, but if he had, he may not have been able to even see the lecture. Jihad Watch’s Andrew Harrod was expelled from the room because he had previously written critically of Brown’s defenses of Islam.
What kind of logic did the professor use to defend his coreligionists from their past with slavery? By relativizing the idea of freedom:
We usually think of slavery as something that exists in a dichotomy with freedom. But what does freedom mean? As the legal scholar Vaughan Lowe jibes, inverting Rousseau’s famous line about man’s natural state of freedom, “Man is born in chains, but everywhere he thinks himself free.” I think this is a very astute observation . . . We all think we are free. Almost no human being is free of dependence on others and on society as a whole — almost everyone is forced to work in order to earn wages to buy food.
Slavery, of course, does exist in dichotomy with freedom. It is not the same as working to pay for food; it is the state of being owned by other people. All historical evidence points to this latter definition being widely practiced in the Islamic world. Nevertheless, Brown claims that Sharia has rules about treating slaves, and therefore Islamic slavery cannot be compared to the “real” slavery in the West.
Brown also defended sex slavery. Questioning the validity of consent as the standard for morally correct sexual activity, he said:
For most of human history, human beings have not thought of consent as the essential feature of morally correct sexual activity. And second, we fetishize the idea of autonomy to the extent that we forget, who is really free? . . . What does autonomy mean?
Pointing out that women in the Islamic world had duties, Brown compared his responsibility of a mortgage to sexual bondage. He summarized: “We are all born into and live in a network of relationships and responsibilities and duties. We [modern Americans] have an obsession with the idea of ‘autonomy.’”
Georgetown has been coming to grips with its own connections to slavery in recent months. In September the university announced that, because it profited from the sale of slaves, it would “offer a formal apology, create an institute for the study of slavery and erect a public memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited the institution.”
Brown takes a much less absolutist view on slavery, to say the least. But his standing at Georgetown does not seem to be in any danger, since he has an endowed chair paid for by Al-Waleed bin Talal, a Saudi prince.