On February 7, Georgetown University Professor Jonathan A.C. Brown gave a lecture titled, “Islam and the Problem of Slavery.”
The lecture was admittedly controversial and was uploaded to YouTube by Brown so his statements couldn’t be “taken out of context.”
The professor read from his paper “Slavery and Islam–Part 1: The Problem of Slavery,” so he wouldn’t make any “hyperbolic statement,” that didn’t make sense outside of his lecture.
His lecture was supposed to be about slavery in regards to Islam but was primarily about slavery in the United States, the United Kingdom, and China, according to one attendee. Umar Lee wrote on Student Voices:
“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.”
Brown claimed slavery in Islam and slavery in any other place, including America, aren’t “comparable at all” because there is no connection to what slavery is within an American context. He pointed to four differences:
- It was rarely racialized
- It was never tied to race
- Slaves had a huge regime of rights
- Slaves in numerous circumstances became the actual rulers or were used as the administrative elite
When his “weak argument,” that slavery isn’t “a wrong,” was questioned by an audience member, he responded with an example of the Prophet of God. He responded:
“Ok, that’s, how can you say, if you’re Muslim, the Prophet of God had slaves. He had slaves. There’s no denying that. Was he—are you more morally mature than the Prophet of God? No you’re not.”
He lightly related slaves in Islamic civilizations to “walking rental properties,” and doesn’t see it as “morally evil,” to own another person.
While his comments about slavery were alarming, his beliefs about consensual sex and the sale of women were even worse. In response to a question about how concubines fit into his views on slavery, Brown said:
“Let’s say in the modern United States, the sine qua non of morally correct sex is consent. We think of people as autonomous agents. Everybody’s an autonomous agent and it’s the consent of that autonomous agent that makes a sexual action acceptable. Correct?”
The audience verbally agreed that consent is necessary to have “morally correct sex.” Brown claimed that the “fact” is, for most of history, “consent” wasn’t essential; yet, everyone starts “flipping out” when the element gets taken away. He said:
“You get rape, you get sexual acts done by people who are too young we perceive to consent. And these are sort of the great moral wrongs of our society. So the idea of someone who is a by definition non-consensual sexual actor in the sense that they have been entered into a sexual relationship in a position of servitude that’s sort of ab initio wrong.”
Then, Brown made the shocking claim that there “is not a big” difference between a woman who is sold, and a woman who marries within her economic bracket. He told his audience:
“What’s the difference between someone who is captured in a raid in the steppes of Central Asia, brought to Istanbul’s slave market, sold to an owner, who, by the way, might treat her badly, might treat her incredibly well. She’s going to bear him children. She’s going to be a free woman. She’s going to be the mother of his children. If he’s high status, she’s going to be high status. If he dies she might be a very desirable wife.
What’s the difference between that and some woman who’s a poor baker’s daughter who gets married to some baker’s son, without any choice because no one expects her to have any choice? And that baker’s son might treat her well. He might treat her horribly. The difference between these two people is not that big.”
The reason why we see the difference between a wife and a woman who has been sold to a man is because Americans are “obsessed with the idea of consent,” according to Brown.
Almost at the close of his lecture, the professor questioned “who’s really free?” Then, related his commitment to his responsibilities to being a slave. He said:
“Can I be like a cowboy in a movie or an action TV series where I just get on my motorcycle and just ride to the West? No, I got kids. I have a mortgage. I mean we’re all born into and live in a network of relationships and responsibilities and duties, but we have this obsession with the idea of autonomy.”
Lee, a Muslim himself, blasted the “dishonest North Korean style of propaganda.” He claimed the professor constructed a world where, “wrongs of the West, excuse any wrongs in the Muslim world,” although he questioned if Brown even thought there were any.
Lee left the lecture feeling “deeply troubled,” that a platform was given to someone who would defend slavery and rape. He also called out the hypocrisy of the event:
“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.”
Finally, Lee wondered why they invited Brown to speak and tolerate his exploitation of Georgetown’s quest for inclusivity.
Despite his incendiary lecture, Brown claimed on Twitter that Islam, as well as himself, condemns rape and slavery.