The director of Georgetown University's Saudi-financed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding is under fire from right-wing conservatives for a lecture he gave about slavery and rape in Islamic history.
Jonathan A.C. Brown, a professor of Islamic studies, gave a lecture on Feb. 7 at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Va., titled "Islam and the Problem of Slavery." The lecture — which ran more than an hour and 20 minutes — sparked critics to accuse him of supporting slavery and rape when he said, for example, "I don't think it's morally evil to own somebody," and "[f]or most of human history, human beings have not thought of consent as the essential feature of morally correct sexual activity."
The tenured Brown, who is Muslim, said in an interview and on Twitter that the accusations that he condones slavery and rape are simply untrue and that his words were taken out of context.
Brown's lecture was from the first of several papers he said he is writing on the question of Islam and slavery that are aimed at giving the Muslim community tools to bridge the gap between "elements of Islamic traditions and modern values" at a time when the Islamic State has "slammed the issue of slavery on the table in the 21st century." In a phone interview, he said was trying to "help frame this problem by discussing the values of consent and autonomy that are prominent today, but they weren't always."
Brown denied that he had condoned slavery and non-consensual sex and said that his critics, some of them from the "alt-right," are misquoting him. "I don't know how they could say that I did," he said. Scholars are at risk, he said, if "some de-contextualized quote of theirs is taken out and prompts a feeding frenzy that calls for them to be fired."
A number of stories from conservative magazines and websites wrote scathing stories about the lecture, saying that he was condoning slavery and non-consensual sex. For example, the American Conservative wrote a piece with this headline: "Georgetown Prof Defends Islamic Slavery." American Thinker had a story with this headline: "Georgetown professor defends Islamic slavery and 'non-consensual' sex." The Daily Banter wrote: "Islamic Studies Professor On Whether Rape and Slavery Are Wrong: It Depends" and "An Islamic Studies professor at Georgetown has taken academic obscurantism and cultural relativism to new heights."
Some critics noted that the Georgetown center where Brown is a director — the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding — is funded with money from Saudi Arabia, where women have few rights. The institute where he gave the lecture has in the past been under scrutiny by U.S. officials for having ties to anti-Israel terrorist financing, a 2004 Washington Post story said.
In a phone interview, Brown said that after the lecture he and his family were threatened anonymously with rape and death. Other Muslim scholars, he said, contacted him and said they were worried about the same kind of reaction if they discussed such issues.
"The first paper was a historical description of slavery as a global phenomenon," he said. "But these people criticizing me don't know the difference between the past and the present tense. The talk I gave was historical description. ... I was so nervous to talk about this issue because it's so controversial."
Brown said that he could have said things more clearly, or used one word for another, but that he is not guilty of what he is being accused of saying.
In one controversial part of the lecture, Brown said: "I don't think it's morally evil to own somebody because we own lots of people all around us and were owned by people and this obsession about thinking of slavery as property."
Asked to explain that comment, he said in an email:
"I never condoned slavery. My argument was that, by limiting our notion of slavery to owning someone, we're blinding ourselves to institutions of exploitation in the past and present in which people are technically not "owned" at all, like incarcerated labor in US prisons. And there have been instances in history where people were technically owned by others but not exploited, like the grand viziers of the Ottoman Empire. Ownership is complicated in any legal system. Exploitation is easy to spot."
Rachel Pugh, a Georgetown spokeswoman, provided this statement from the university:
As an academic community, we are committed to academic freedom and the ability of faculty members to freely pursue their research and express their analysis. While we will defend this academic freedom, the body of a faculty member's work does not necessarily represent the University's position. The views of any faculty member are their own and not the views of the University.
In the lecture, he said that Americans think of slavery as depicted in the film "12 Years a Slave," but that it looked differently in other times and places in history. He noted, for example, that a concubine's autonomy in early Islamic civilizations was not that much different from a wife's because women married whom their family wanted.
He concluded that "the word 'slavery' can mean so many things that it's not very useful for accurate communication" because it "often ends up referring to things we don't mean when we think of slavery, or it fails to match things we do associate with slavery." He said that "we morally fetishize" the word "slavery" when "we should actually be looking at the condition" in which people live. He said:
"Slavery cannot just be treated as a moral evil in and of itself because slavery doesn't mean anything. The moral evil is extreme forms of deprivation of rights and extreme forms of control and extreme forms of exploitation. I don't think it's morally evil to own somebody because we own lots of people all around us and were owned by people and this obsession about thinking of slavery as property ... it's just inconceivable sin, I think that's actually a really odd and unhelpful way to think about slavery. It kind of gets you locked in this way of thinking that if you talk about ownership and people that you've already transgressed some moral boundary that you can't come back from. I don't think that's true at all."
He also 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 where we forget, who is really free? ... What does autonomy mean?"
He asked what the difference was between someone who was captured in a raid in the steppes of Central Asia in earlier times, brought to a slave market and sold to an owner who might treat her badly or might treat her "incredibly well" and offer her high status and that of a baker's daughter who was forced to marry a baker who might treat her terribly.
Brown wrote a long statement about the controversy in which he said he apologized to those hurt by the lecture. He also sought to clarify some positions. He said, for example, that "[r]ape in Islam is haram (prohibited)," and "a violation of the rights of a human and the rights of God." He also wrote:
Here the Shariah [Islamic law] historically worked differently from modern laws on marital rape, which originated in the 1970s. But the effect is similar: protection. Within marriage, wrongs regarding sex were not conceived of as violations of consent. They were conceived of as harm inflicted on the wife. And in Islamic history wives could and did go to courts to complain and get judges to order husbands to desist and pay damages. So yes, non-consensual sex is wrong and forbidden in Islam. But the operating element to punish marital rape fell under the concept of harm, not non-consent."