Georgetown University Professor Jonathan Brown, already notorious for past scandalous comments justifying Islamic slavery (including rape), only worsened his reputation with a recent May 8 lecture. Before about 90 listeners filling Georgetown’s small Riggs Library, the Saudi-funded Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) director clinically explicated disturbingly dark Islamic political doctrines.
In conjunction with Cambridge University Professor Philip Sheldrake, a Christian, the American Muslim convert Brown slavishly addressed “Power: Divine and Human—Christian and Muslim Perspectives” in a manner hardly flattering to Islam. He noted that “in the Quran, God’s power is the superlative of all superlatives, it is total, absolute, and without exception.” Correspondingly, the “word that the Quran uses over and over to refer to human beings” is the “slaves of God.”
“The power of God,” Brown elaborated, “we ponder as his slaves” and in Islam “mortal reason must remain apart from Him.” Islam’s ninth-century Mutazilites had argued that “God was constrained by justice and was unable to do evil . . . yet this school of thought was and remains a decidedly minority one.” By contrast, mainstream Sunni Islamic thinking concluded that “God is not constrained by justice, because God is justice.”
The detached Brown elaborated that the Quran’s imperious divinity “historically . . . gave birth to a worldview in which power was a main idiom of formatting society and framing relations.” “In the Islamic worldview there is a hierarchy of power that was not moral or metaphysical, but essentially functional.” “Life is not egalitarian . . . because people have different abilities and talents and because they must fulfill different functions.” In the Quran, for example, (feminists should mark his words) “God has ‘favored men over women’ not in any moral or absolute sense, but because he created two different genders with complementary capacities.”
Brown explained how literally Islam’s “master-slave relationship between God and man is reflected in the structure of ordered subordination amongst mankind.” “Although the Quran repeatedly urges Muslims to free their slaves and even commands it as expiation for certain sins, the Holy Book takes the existence of the slave-master relationship for granted” as a “structural feature in that world.” Ominously for non-Muslims, “when Muslim scholars speculated on the theological ideology of slavery as a condition, they settled on it being a punishment for disbelief, since the only people that Muslims could enslave were non-Muslims.”
Slavery reflected Brown’s wider discussion of an Islamic “power hierarchy amongst religious traditions. From the Islamic perspective, people who learn about Islam but nonetheless choose not to embrace it, have gone astoundingly astray.” Yet the “Quran and the Prophet’s precedent make clear that these religious groups can continue to follow their own religions under Muslim rule, and their rights to do so will be protected, but they are not equal to Muslims.” Although highly euphemistic, his discussion of such “protected minorities” (dhimmis) did not conceal that “non-Muslims could not inherit from Muslims and that non-Muslims could not build houses taller than those of their Muslim neighbors.”
Lest anyone consider rebelling against this Islamic “ordered subordination” in accord with America’s Declaration of Independence, Brown noted Islamic debates over a natural law right of revolution going back to the faith’s founding. As Syria’s current bloodbath suggests, without counter-power “power on this earth can’t be restrained and therefore opposing it is too dangerous.” The “Sunni Muslim answer is the answer that favors order over justice; it says that the worst thing is anarchy,” although he ignored a sectarian exception of Islamic scholars for rebellion against Muslim apostate rulers.
Brown’s efforts to take the edge off his comments for audience inquiries were not convincing. Responding to a woman who asked whether non-Muslims would always be second-class citizens under Islam, he doubted that such dhimmi norms would continue in future Islamic societies. He cited the Ottoman Empire’s 1856 civic reforms as an example, yet failed to mention that these ultimately failed reforms resulted in large measure from Western influence.
A Christian woman from Indonesia similarly raised the recent controversy of an Indonesian provincial governor condemned by Muslims in his electorate on the basis of Quran 5:51. Often translated as a prohibition on Muslims taking non-Muslim “friends,” Brown tried to argue that the operative Arabic word (auliya) meant “protectors” in the context of Islam’s founding community fighting pagan enemies. Yet a Quranic translation of “protector” would seemingly also apply to an elected non-Muslim governor, as he would exercise a protective public trust over Muslims.
While Brown’s Middle East Studies colleagues often strain to concoct an alternative reality Islamic history as a “religion of peace,” his brutally frank presentation laid bare Islamic supremacism’s theological basis. Seemingly doubling down on his previous slavery outrage, his comments only validate every concern of the “Islamophobes” he derides. Audience member Ovamir Anjum only emphasized the point with his presence; this University of Toledo Islamic Studies professor had once stated alongside his panel moderator Brown that “ISIS is as Islamic as anything else.”
In a stark contrast to Brown, Sheldrake explicated that “in the person of Jesus, God reveals the power of love” and linked this love with the context in which he and Brown were speaking, the annual Building Bridges Seminar. Previously originated by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the seminar’s title “affirms the vital importance of breaking down the walls of separation that tend to divide humanity and sometimes lead to destructive conflict.” Yet Brown’s willful God of inscrutable pure power offers hardly a firm foundation for interfaith bridge building.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter at @AEHarrod. This article was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.