Georgetown University (The Washington Post)

(Update: adding new comments about lecture from scholars of Islam)

The director of Georgetown University’s Saudi-financed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding is under fire by some conservatives as well as liberal scholars of Islam 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 some conservative 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 a phone 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. “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.”

He said that after the lecture he and his family were threatened anonymously with rape and death. Other scholars of Islams, he said, contacted him and said they were worried about the same kind of reaction if they discussed such issues.

Brown said the criticism was coming from far-right commentators. But they were not the only critics. Some scholars of Islam, including Ayesha S. Chaudhry of the University of British Columbia and Sadaf Jaffer of Princeton University, said they have several problems with Brown’s presentation of the issues of slavery and sexual consent in Islam.

“I was frankly appalled by Professor Brown’s comments that minimized the severity of the institution of slavery as well as the importance of consent in sexual relationships,” Jaffer said in an email. She is a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in South Asian Studies at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. She wrote:

“My reaction was shared by many of my (liberal) peers in Islamic studies circles. As scholars, it is important that we teach Islam as a human and historical phenomenon. It is not acceptable to simply relativize the concepts of slavery, human autonomy, and consent to the point where they have no meaning. We have to think about the impact of our comments on our students and the university community.”

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.”

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.

Brown said that he was offering “a historical description of slavery as a global phenomenon.” But he added: These people criticizing me don’t know the difference between the past and the present tense. The talk I gave was historical description.”

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.”

In the lecture, he said that Americans think of slavery as depicted in the film “12 Years a Slave,” but that it looked different 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 in the lecture:

“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?”

While answering a question from someone in the audience, Brown referenced Mohammad, the founder of Islam, saying to his questioner: “He had slaves, there is no denying that. Are you more morally mature than the prophet of God?” No, you’re not.”

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.”

Chaudhry, an associate professor of Islamic studies and gender studies at the University of British Columbia, took exception to that reference to the prophet Mohammad as well as other points in Brown’s lecture. She said in an interview that there is a legitimate question about how scholars should try to address what Islam says about issues such as slavery, the marriage of minors, consent and sex.

“Some will say we look at the past …  but the thing is that in the past we have hundreds of thousands of texts. Looking at the past is always a selective act. It is never neutral or objective as it might sound. The other alternative is to look at what living Muslims are doing. There are 1.6 or 1.7 billion Muslims living in the world today and their practice also has an authoritative status.” The overwhelming majority of Muslims today, she said, oppose slavery.

She also said that his comments about Mohammad owning slaves ignore the message behind the story of how the prophet purchased a black slave who was being tortured by his master, freed him and then gave him religious authority.

“For me that is the example of the prophet that Muslims follow,” she said. “Slavery is an institution. It is an institution of some human beings owning other human beings. And Muslims as an overwhelming majority believe that slavery is illegal and immoral. So Jack Brown arguing that it is not a moral evil stands in contrast to what the majority of Muslims believe.”

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.