By Umar Lee
Last night I attended a lecture by Georgetown Islamic Studies professor Jonathan Brown at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Virginia. I’d never met Brown and don’t know really much about him other than a brother was amused he scheduled a recent lecture during the Super Bowl.
Not knowing what to expect from Brown I was shocked when he basically went into a 90 minute defense of slavery which included an explicit endorsement of non-consensual sex.
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).
Brown constructs a world where the wrongs of the West excuse any wrongs (if he believes there are any) in the Muslim World.
“Slavery wasn’t racialized” in Muslim societies, Brown stated. That would be believable if it weren’t well-known black people in the Arab World and African-Americans in this country weren’t constantly referred to as abeed (slaves) simply because the color of the skin.
Brown described slavery in the Muslim World as kinder and gentler. The Arab poet who wrote “before you buy the slave buy the stick… for he is nejas (impure)” is perhaps a better description of Arab slavery than what Brown offered.
“Slaves were protected by shariah (Islamic Law)” Brown stated with no recognition of the idealized legal version of slavery and slavery as it was practiced. In this version of slavery there is an omission of kidnappings, harems, armies of eunuchs, and other atrocities.
The above argument is similar to the arguments previously defeated by Muslim bloggers and activists that racism and misogyny didn’t exist in the Muslim community because there was no textual support when in fact both are rampant.
“It’s not immoral for one human to own another human” Brown stated in his clearest defense of slavery. Brown went onto state that being an employee is basically the same as being a slave and painting himself as a real romantic Brown told me his marriage was akin to slavery because his wife held rights over him. The fact that both of these arrangements can be terminated and are consensual seemed lost on the aloof academic.
“Consent isn’t necessary for lawful sex” said Professor Jonathan Brown of Georgetown University.
Shortly after I asked Brown my questions about his defense of slavery a woman seated in front of me asked about the permissibility of sex with slaves. Brown emphatically stated consent is a modern Western concept and only recently had come to be seen as necessary (perhaps around the time feminism began to take root and women decided they wanted autonomy over their bodies). Brown went on to elaborate consent wasn’t necessary to moral and ethical sex and that the morality of sex is dependent on the lawfulness of the sex-partner and not consent upholding the verdict that marital-rape is an invalid concept in Islam.
I left this lecture deeply troubled this man had been given a platform to defend slavery and rape. I also left knowing that a Catholic Priest at Georgetown would be fired immediately if he defended the brutality of Catholic-led slavery in Latin America or defended rape. The same would be true of a rabbi at Yeshiva University. So, why as Muslims should we tolerate and invite someone like Brown to speak and why is Brown hideously exploiting Georgetown’s commitment to be inclusive?
Note: The full lecture was recorded by IIIT and should be available soon if not already.