A Georgetown University Islamic studies professor has come under fire for a talk he gave earlier this week in which he offered an Islam-based defense of slavery, concubinage and non-consensual sex.
Jonathan AC Brown, who serves as director of the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown, gave his admittedly controversial speech on Tuesday at the International Institute of Islamic Thought, a Virginia-based group that has foundational ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the speech, and a subsequent question-and-answer session, Brown, a white convert to Islam, essentially downplayed the harshness of slavery in Islam. He also stated that American and Western society is “obsessed with the idea of autonomy and consent.”
And at one point in the talk, Brown appeared to suggest that modern Muslims have little room to question the morality of slavery since Muhammad was a slave owner.
“The Prophet of God had slaves. He had slaves. There’s no denying that,” he told a man during the Q&A session. “Was he — are you more morally mature than the Prophet of God? No you’re not. I’ll answer your question for you.”
He also said, according to a transcription provided by The Daily Banter:
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 we’re owned by people.
“In general, you don’t find the brutality that you see in American slavery. As far as I can tell, generally it is simply not very common. Slaves in Islamic civilization were mostly investments,” he added.
Brown’s thesis on a moral relativism for slavery pales in comparison to his apparent defense of concubinage, which is condoned in the Quran.
He conjured up a scenario in which a woman taken captive during a raid and sold as a slave to a wealthy man is just as free in an existential sense as a woman who was born into and married into poverty. He said:
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. That person’s situation? 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. We see it as enormous because we’re obsessed with the idea of autonomy and consent, would be my first response,” Brown added.
He also questioned what it meant to give “consent” to sex and to be autonomous, all in an attempt to defend Islam.
“It’s very hard to have this discussion because we think of, 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,” he said.
“If you take away the consent element, then everyone starts flipping out,” Brown continued, adding: “We fetishize the idea of autonomy to the extent that we forget, again who’s really free? Are we really autonomous people?”
Brown, who frequently appears at events hosted by Muslim Brotherhood-connected groups like the Muslim American Society and the Islamic Circle of North American, acknowledged prior to his talk that he would be discussing “a controversial topic.”
He also said that he planned to record his speech because he predicted that his “hyperbolic statement[s] could easily be taken out of context.”
“I’m going to get accused of calling for slavery or something like that, so I wasn’t going to take that risk,” he said.
Brown then went on a diatribe against a member of the audience who he said has written negatively about him and IIIT. He also attempted to embarrass the man, a freelance writer named Andrew Harrod, for eating too much at the events he has attended.
Harrod, who has published at various websites that are critical of radical Islam, wrote a recap at the website Jihad Watch of Brown’s talk.
In the piece, he noted that Brown converted to Islam as a student at Georgetown in 2010. He later married the daughter of Sami Al-Arian, the former professor at the University of South Florida who was found guilty of providing material support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terror group.