Georgetown Islamic Studies Professor Defends Muslim Slavery

An Islamic studies professor at Georgetown University discussed slavery in a historical context last week, shading the Muslim institution as morally superior to other forms in England, the United States, and China. While the professor asked deep questions about the meaning of slavery across different social and historical contexts, his discussion proved painfully one-sided, ignoring the evils of Islamic civilization (and the continuing slavery in the Muslim world) while berating others.

"I don't think it's morally evil to own somebody," declared Jonathan A. Brown, the Alwaleed bin Talal Chair of Islamic Civilization at Georgetown University. Brown argued that the modern Western notion of "autonomy" is overemphasized, and that in reality "we own lots of people all around us and we're owned by people." Due to the complexity of human interdependence and social interaction, "the term doesn't mean anything," and neither does the term "slavery."

"As we have seen, ownership, freedom, and exploitation come in shades of gray," the Islamic studies professor said. He argued that "what we think we mean by slavery means little outside our American experience," and he suggested that modern Americans would be unable to identify slavery in other historical contexts.

Brown does have a point. He presented a few scenarios: the work of a prison chain gang, a young man being beaten for refusing to take orders, and a posh ruler in the Ottoman Empire. The chain gang is technically not slavery, but Americans would be more likely to identify the prisoners as slaves. The young man being beaten is the master's son, not his slave, and the posh ruler — a grand vizier — is technically a slave.

"We associate slavery with physical degradation, harsh labor, and violence ... [and] with a total loss of agency," Brown explained. Historically, slavery has not always included these things.

The difficulty with Brown's presentation is not the deep probing questions on what constitutes slavery and freedom — those are legitimate academic pursuits. The difficulty comes with Brown's examples. While the lecture was entitled "Islam and the Problem of Slavery," the professor only presented a few examples of Islamic slavery, and they were overwhelmingly positive. American, British, and Chinese examples weren't so lucky.

Brown said he was trying to distinguish "slavery from other forms of coerced labor," but in doing so, he pointed out the horrid conditions of indentured servants from Britain and slavery in colonial America — contrasted with the slavery in the 1400s Ottoman Empire, when slaves were sometimes settled to work on the land and could pass down their estates to their children.

The professor's bias also emerged in an off-hand remark about tax dodging. After noting that in 1724 the Russian czar abolished slavery because serfs were selling themselves as slaves to avoid paying taxes, he quipped that "maybe this could be an option for Republicans or something."