On March 16, 2017, Foreign Policy editor Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian published an article titled The Making of Islamophobia Inc. analyzing the controversy surrounding a lecture on slavery delivered by Georgetown Professor Jonathan AC Brown last month.
Brown, who delivered his lecture “Islam and the Problem of Slavery” on February 7, 2017, became the subject of widespread vituperative attacks by left and right-wing figures alike—including Muslims—for what they believed were intellectual justifications of rape and slavery in the Islamic tradition.
As Allen-Ebrahimian points out, the online diatribe against Brown was sparked by “a blog post titled ‘Georgetown Professor Jonathan Brown Defends Slavery as Moral and Rape as Normal in Virginia Lecture’ on a website called Student Voices. The author is a former cabdriver from St. Louis and a Muslim convert named Umar Lee, with a long history of flip-flopping between Christianity and extremist Islam who had attended the lecture.”
Even after Brown explicitly rejected these accusations, writing on Twitter that “Islam as a faith and I as a person condemn slavery, rape and concubinage,” and publishing a detailed clarification of his beliefs in an article for Muslim Matters titled “Apology Without Apologetics,” he still continued to be smeared as an apologist for slavery and rape.
Robert Spencer’s notoriously Islamophobic website Jihad Watch republished Lee’s post almost immediately after it appeared, and far-right figures like Pamela Geller and Milo Yiannopolous used their platforms to promote a similarly unfounded, distorted interpretation of Brown’s views. As Allen-Ebrahimian indicates, the truth belies their vitriol:
[Brown] approached slavery in the same way that Christian ministers often have — by putting slavery in a historical context. In a manner familiar to historians and anthropologists, he deconstructed the 21st-century English-language word “slavery” and the institution to which it typically refers — an extreme, abusive, violent, and racialized system of exploitation over which America fought a war to finally abolish. “Freedom and exploitation come in shades of gray,” Brown said. “They exist on spectrums.” He gave historical examples that challenge a modern understanding of slavery — of slaves who rose to high rank in the Ottoman Empire, of slaves who themselves owned slaves, of how in some societies wives had few more rights than concubines, of free women in 19th-century Britain who were not permitted to own property and whose legal rights were tied to their husbands.
What matters, Brown concluded, was not the label “slavery” in and of itself, but whether or not a society engaged in exploitation or subjugation of human beings. It was such exploitation and subjugation that Islamic law aimed to prevent, a subject Brown said he would address further in his next lecture.
What Brown was attempting to do was build a bridge for American Muslims between their sacred scripture and their human rights sensibilities, as many Christian thinkers before him have done. For his efforts, he attracted the attention of an Islamophobic ecosystem designed to marginalize any Muslim who speaks out. Brown’s straightforward academic lecture was quickly transformed into fodder for a flood of unscrupulous articles painting him as someone who “justifies slavery and the rape of female slaves,” leaving him with a horrific online footprint that is likely to trail him for decades.
In the years after 9/11, a small but powerful network of funders and ideological activists has waged a major misinformation campaign, seeking to cast Islam as a diabolical threat that must be eradicated. Their concerted efforts have resulted in an influential infrastructure of websites, activists, lawmakers, and grassroots organizations that hold sway in municipal councils and state legislatures — and now have the ear of the president of the United States.
The criticisms against Brown had almost nothing to do with the factual content of what he said. As Allen-Ebrahimian suggests, the “scandal” surrounding Brown’s lecture was simply an opportunity for Islamophobes (and uninformed liberals with a bloated, self-righteous moral view) to substantiate their a priori beliefs about Islam, as a barbaric belief system with a proclivity for rape and slavery. Indeed, Brown’s critics merely sought “to marginalize Muslims by making their speech and their activism relating to their religion come at a very high price. They believe that Muslims are malevolent, duplicitous, and dangerous, and these Islamophobes will bend the truth to fit their claims.”
Read Allen-Ebrahimian’s entire piece here.