A decade ago, few outside the academy would have noticed Jonathan Brown’s lecture on slavery. A Washington native who looks a good bit younger than his 39 years, Brown is now a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, where he directs the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is also a convert to Islam. Much of his work is aimed at making Islamic thought more accessible to general audiences.
But Brown’s attempts to explain the faith have made him a hate figure for the American Right. A flood of articles accuse him of being an apologist for slavery and rape. His family have received death and rape threats.
It all started with good intentions. Brown is one of the majority of Muslims around the world who believes the Islamic State practises a warped interpretation of Islamic thought that blesses slavery, rape and other crimes. But Brown also knows that not all Muslims are so quick to dismiss the jihadi group’s theology. Certainly, the hundreds of foreign fighters who have trickled into Syria and Iraq to join its ranks find its ideas seductive. For some others, the veneer of religious authenticity used to justify Islamic State atrocities has led to a crisis of faith. And the cacophony of violence plaguing much of the Muslim world tends to drown out the voices of those most qualified to referee the religious confusion.
But Brown felt that he was called to try, hence his public lecture at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Virginia, on February 7. In the first of what he intended as a three-part series, Brown addressed slavery in Islam, hoping to combat the idea that Islam could ever condone the subjugation and exploitation of human beings.
That was when he encountered a cacophony of a different sort — America’s far Right, anti-Muslim ecosystem that has adopted the same twisted interpretations of Islam that the Islamic State promotes. After the lecture, Brown endured a cascade of online attacks from conservative and alternative-Right heavyweights such as Ann Coulter, Robert Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos, who claimed that he had actually condoned the acts he had set about to condemn. His university department was flooded with demands that he be fired.
Brown is the victim of an increasingly empowered industry of Islamophobia that constricts the space for balanced and open dialogue, sidelining the very Muslims who are doing the most to promote peaceful, orthodox interpretations of Islam. The United States has powerful protections for speech and religious liberty that have allowed faith traditions to hammer out their theological debates in a free and protected environment. But a targeted network now seeks to deny Muslims that freedom and to treat Islam as a dangerous political ideology rather than a religion — and, like the McCarthyites of the 1950s, to silence and discredit any Muslims who disagree.
The Koran does not condemn slavery. Muhammad is said to have encouraged manumission of slaves as a virtuous act, but other teachings traditionally attributed to him establish guidelines for the treatment of slaves. These limit the scope of slavery, but do not condemn it absolutely.
By the 20th century, most Islamic thinkers rejected the practice, and countries throughout the Muslim world abolished it. Ahmad Bey, the ruler of Tunis, outlawed the practice in 1846. Numerous regions followed suit, with Saudi Arabia finally abolishing it in 1962.
But how are modern believers reading ancient texts, which they hold to be inerrant and timeless, to take a passage such as Surah 24:32: “And marry those among you who are single and those who are fit among your male slaves and your female slaves”? The verse appears to accept slavery as an institution and could even be seen as encouraging nonconsensual sexual relations. It is troubling and problematic for anyone who believes in freedom and universal human rights, particularly when a self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate invokes such passages to justify the enslavement of Yazidi women and girls.
Yet this is a problem that Christians have long faced as well. The United States once battled its own militant pseudo-state that invoked religion to justify institutionalised slavery. “[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God,” said Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America. “It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation ... it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilisation, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”
The Gettysburg Museum of History in Pennsylvania describes the Civil War as a “theological crisis” in American Christianity. One exhibit features an 1857 pamphlet called Slavery: Ordained of God, written by the Reverend Fred A. Ross of Huntsville, Alabama. Near by is a painting of John Brown, the famed Christian abolitionist, holding a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.
The Bible mentions slavery, but Jesus never condemned it. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything,” enjoins the New Testament book of Colossians. The Old Testament has numerous verses regulating the treatment of slaves, and permitting masters to marry or have sexual relations with slave women.
These days, of course, American Christianity comes down firmly on the side of abolition. Bible-based arguments in support of slavery are dead outside of a lunatic fringe of “Christian nationalists”. Christians in America have ample private space to discuss the meaning and implications of these passages, and to engage in discursive reinterpretation of their sacred book.
The accepted answer to the question of slavery in the Bible now goes like this: slavery as practised in biblical times was a different kind of slavery from the totalitarian, race-based institution practised in the American South. Slaves had many rights. And society at that time was different from what it is now. Social class was heavily constricted, few people enjoyed freedom and social mobility, and slaves had a known social status that ensured them a certain position in society. The Bible contains many verses indicating that a true system of exploitation would be wrong.
Sermons along these lines are common in Sunday morning church as well as in youth-group meetings. John Piper, the hugely popular Christian pastor and writer, devotes an entry on his website to slavery in the New Testament. The early church leader Paul encouraged slaves to obey their masters, but, as Piper writes, “Paul does encourage slaves to gain their freedom if they can.”
One blog on the website of the leading evangelical publication Christianity Today put it like this: “The Bible is the Word of God, but it was written at a certain time in history where slavery was normal. Thus, the Bible talks about it as if it’s just the reality of the world.”
There is even a popular Christian worship song called Pierce My Ear, which refers to an Old Testament verse in which a slave asks his master to allow him to serve him for the rest of his life, and to “pierce his ear with an awl” as proof of that promise. The website of a Christian youth camp in Wisconsin explains it this way: “The verse isn’t intended to reinforce the institution of slavery, but it recognises that a slave who was scheduled to be set free after seven years might choose to stay with a master [and his family], especially if freedom had no prospects.”
The song is an allegorical approach that highlights a moral lesson rather than a literal interpretation meant for today’s world.
As a result of this iterative process, enabled by free speech and a protected space for discussion, the overwhelming majority of Christians who believe slavery is wrong are able to hold on to their faith, and even to use it as a justification for modern interpretations of human rights.
Islam in the United States today is increasingly, and systematically, denied that free and respected space for discussion.
Brown’s 80-minute lecture was a case in point. He 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 racialised system of exploitation over which America fought a war to finally abolish. “Freedom and exploitation come in shades of grey,” 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 that 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 marginalise 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 big 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 organisations that hold sway in municipal councils and state legislatures — and now have the ear of the President of the United States.
Between 2001 and 2009, seven charitable foundations donated $42.6 million to think-tanks that promoted anti-Muslim rhetoric, as a 2011 report by the Centre for American Progress revealed. These organisations include Frank Gaffney’s Centre for Security Policy; Stop Islamisation of America, founded by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer; the website Jihad Watch, directed by Spencer; and the David Horowitz Freedom Centre, which hosts Jihad Watch.
These organisations came up with several talking points about Islam that they promoted among lawmakers, grassroots networks and the Christian Right. Chiefly among these ideas was the belief that sharia, or Islamic law, is a totalitarian political ideology that presents the greatest domestic threat facing the United States today; that the Muslim Brotherhood, a loosely organised international Islamist movement, has infiltrated the US Government; and that Islam commands believers to lie about their motives. In other words, no Muslim can be trusted; you must infiltrate their private spaces to learn what they think.
This campaign has been wildly successful. Gaffney is now a senior adviser to the White House. Gaffney’s influence extends throughout the administration. Kellyanne Conway, who ran Trump’s campaign and now serves as counsellor to the President, managed polling for the Centre for Security Policy. Stephen Bannon, former head of the alt-Right website Breitbart and now White House chief strategist, frequently invited Gaffney to appear on Breitbart’s radio show.
Spencer’s website, Jihad Watch, which received more than $500,000 in donations between 2001 and 2009 from those same seven foundations, has brought him global influence as well. He has published two New York Times bestsellers. The ideas he has promulgated on his site have resonated in the US Tea Party movement and abroad: Anders Breivik, the self-styled Christian conservative who murdered 77 people in the worst mass killing in Norway since the Second World War, referred to Spencer and his Jihad Watch website 162 times in his manifesto, in which he justified his actions as necessary to combat the “ongoing Islamic Colonisation of Europe”.
Jihad Watch even has a correspondent whose primary beat appears to be attending academic lectures around the Beltway, particularly at Georgetown, and publishing articles “exposing” the creeping ideology of radical Islam.
Websites such as Jihad Watch have proliferated, including the sites Religion of Peace and Answering Islam, and those that often repost their content, including World Net Daily, the Daily Caller, Heat Street, and, of course, Breitbart.
The effect has been to create a self-reinforcing online ecosystem that churns out frenzied headlines and constructs alternate online biographies, often displayed in first-page results from any search engine, in which normal American Muslims are painted as Muslim Brotherhood-linked, jihad-loving, rape-defending threats to the American way of life. Brown’s lecture lasted like chum in shark-infested waters.
It started with 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 taxi driver 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. “Not knowing what to expect from Brown, I was shocked when he basically went into a 90-minute defence of slavery which included an explicit endorsement of nonconsensual sex,” Lee wrote.
It is unclear how that was Lee’s takeaway from a lecture explicitly intended to do the opposite.
Lee’s blog was quickly picked up by Jihad Watch, with Spencer getting into a round of Twitter sparring with Brown. On February 10, Coulter retweeted a related article from Heat Street to her 1.4 million followers, which read: “A Georgetown Islamic Studies professor defends slavery and says rape is OK because consent is a ‘Western’ concept.”
On February 11, in an attempt to stem the bleeding, Brown tweeted: “Islam as a faith and I as a person condemn slavery, rape and concubinage.”
But it was too late. Soon dozens of articles were published proclaiming that Brown had defended slavery and rape as acceptable. Geller wrote about him; Yiannopoulos featured Brown on his website and Facebook account. Brown received dozens of voice messages on his office phone telling him to pack his bags and leave the country, implying that people were coming to look for him and threatening to rape his wife.
By February 15, the relatively mainstream conservative National Review had piled on, suggesting that Brown’s supposed defence of slavery may be related to his endowed chair, which is funded by a Saudi. By February 20, it was on Fox News. Two days later, Gaffney wrote a public letter to Georgetown University president John DeGioia, calling for Brown’s termination. Brown told Foreign Policy that the university had remained very supportive; other academics have come out to back him.
Brown knew in advance that in America’s political climate such a lecture would be easy fodder for Islamophobes. He referred to this several times, joking about misleading articles that could possibly come from his talk. He even took precautions: his entire talk was simply him reading from a written paper so that his language was precise and cautious. A Jihad Watch correspondent who had written sensationalist pieces about Georgetown events was in the audience; the institute that organised the lecture asked him to leave before it began.
In the end, none of that mattered.
On February 16, in the middle of the fray, Brown wrote a long response on the blog Muslim Matters. “First, I want to apologise to those hurt by how I addressed the topic of slavery in Islam,” Brown wrote. “I should listen to my wife more. She always tells me that I talk about things too much like a scholar and not enough like a normal person. Topics like slavery are felt with the heart; I shouldn’t talk about them like a disembodied brain.”
His apology demonstrated a sense of humility, but also, perhaps, a mistaken sense of control over the situation — that if he had acted differently, it might have changed the outcome. In reality, American Muslims are reacting to forces far beyond their control: a feverish paranoia that echoes the anti-Communist Red Scare in the decade after the Second World War. Virtually any Muslim who has chosen to speak out or to become active in politics has faced a torrent of similarly unscrupulous smearing.
Ideologues are seeking to marginalise 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. In the process, they are denying Islam the same functional rights that Christianity enjoys and are silencing the very people best placed to reconcile Islam with modern American life. Which may be the very point.
• Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy