by Daniel Ibn Zayd
To quote from Stephen Sheehi‘s book, Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims:
The issue of gender has been a key prong in the strategic trident to unify bi-partisan and mass support for US interventionism in the Muslim world. Both Arabic and English media have been flooded by a slew of contrived, opportunistic, and charlatan Muslim and Arab women, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Nonie Darwish, Wafa Sultan, and Brigitte Gabriel, advancing Western-centric attacks on Islam.
As Sheehi points out, these attacks have mostly focused on issues such as the veil, as well as honor crimes, with the advocates so listed vaulted to the top of expert panels and best-seller lists by virtue of their parroting the dominant discourse, as befits the role of the comprador class. To this shameful compendium we can add another woman, as well as another line of attack: Asra Nomani, and adoption in the Muslim world.
As an adoptee who has returned to his birthplace of Lebanon, I have been actively watching the rise of this trope in the media, on online forums, as well as in private online exchanges for the past seven years. For one example, in 2009 the AP reported on a couple trying to adopt from Egypt. Compared to the crime of this couple and the corruption of government officials there, it is nonetheless Islam that bears the burden of opprobrium in the article: Adoption in Egypt is defined as being “snarled in religious tradition”. This became a contentious discussion on the web site Canada Adopts, where the given of the argument was basically how to get around these Islamic invocations, as if they somehow were to blame for the legal transgressions of the would-be adopters.
For another example, we need go to Pamela Geller’s web site Atlas Shrugged. Here the tables are turned on would-be adoptive parents of Moroccan children who would be required to maintain the child’s Muslim faith. Ms. Geller describes this as some evil Islamic fifth column in the making, despite the fact that most every orphanage on the planet is Christian-based and missionary in outlook and likewise requires that the parents be of a particular faith in order to adopt.
Similarly, in her article for The Daily Beast, Asra Nomani writes an article which implies that the orphaned children of Pakistan are being recruited by Al-Qaeda as future suicide bombers. Her answer to this problem? To undo the “antiquated, shortsighted, and regressive stricture that makes adoption illegal [within Islam]”. This focus on Islam as a problem for adoptive parents who supposedly want to help the orphans of the world is quite loaded, and needs to be deconstructed on two levels, first in terms of the historical and economic/political function of adoption, and second in terms of linguistic and theologic use/misuse of the term.
The Big Picture: Economics and Politics
Whatever the motivation for adoptive parents in the First World, it is a fact that adoption source countries have followed a particular pattern that would quite easily make an additional chapter to Naomi Klein‘s The Shock Doctrine, in which children become just another resource to plunder and export. Geller and Nomani, in their acceptance of adoption as a given institution in the civilized world, follow in the footsteps of the founding spokeswoman for the so-called plight of orphans, Pearl S. Buck, who in 1964 published the book Children for Adoption. In terms that mimic today’s rhetoric concerning these children, which we currently see repeated in the current hype concerning Kony in Uganda, attention is shifted from the needs of parents (to start a family, to procreate) to those of children (need for a nuclear-family environment), while simultaneously castigating the seeming indifference of their cultures and countries and their inability to care for them.
This infantilization of other countries, now requiring the intervention of a “doting Uncle”, leaves unremarked the fact that such countries–Korea in the 1950s; Uganda today–have been targets of First World punishment via war, sanctions, and economic exploitation. This would explain the presence in Nomani’s article of cliched photographs of children in Iraqi orphanages, as the move is made to the last holdout against such wanton appropriation of foreign children. Nine long years after the invasion of Iraq, however, their inclusion here begs the question: Where has Ms. Nomani been for the past five American administrations, the sanctions, warfare, and sponsored internecine battles of which have killed more children outright than could possible ever be adopted to the West? Furthermore, on a list of countries that allow refugees from these Muslim lands, the U.S. remains near the bottom, behind countries such as Sweden, not to mention leagues behind Iraq’s neighbors that have taken in millions of refugees.
To focus on these children without focusing on their families or communities thus becomes an ignoble hypocrisy; as if to say, “give us your huddled masses–but only if they are cute children and can be indoctrinated from an early age.” This brings us to the other propaganda photos used on the Daily Beast, showing children dressed as soldiers, evoking the specter of infants inculcated with anti-American sentiment, the major fear expressed by the article. Similar to the willful ignorance of the plight of women by Islamophobes in their own locales, Nomani seems not to notice her own culture’s use of such imagery and cultural tropes: she need just visit the Intrepid Navy Museum, or any Civil War town, to see the red, white, and blue version of what she claims to fear most.
But we don’t have to dig so deep when Nomani wears her sentiment on her sleeve:
The council, noting that the Prophet Muhammad was an orphan, supports adoption, citing a Quranic verse enjoining us to practice islah, or “to make better,” the condition of orphans. It says: “And they ask you about orphans. Say: Making things right for them (islah) is better.” (2:220) The women argue that adoption encourages ‚Äúthe protection and promotion of healthy minds.‚Äù Indeed. Perhaps it protects kids from becoming terrorists as well.
It might behoove the author to define “terror”, especially given the millions of Arabs and Muslims who have died as a result of overt American attempts to exploit their countries, or of subsidiary attacks from Israel, or via the dictators put in place to keep oil running freely.
This hypocrisy was perhaps best exemplified by an adoption that was lauded in the American press during the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 . “Logan”–inauspiciously named after the airport of his arrival–was “rescued” from Lebanon with special visas provided by U.S. Senators, while many Americans waited days and days for evacuation, and in racially profiled order. No mention is made of the 1400+ civilians killed in that conflict, a third of them children. More importantly, nowhere do we read the fact that Lebanon has a long history of trafficking children. Sayyed Mohammad Fadlallah‘s orphanage system in the South, going back to the 1950s, was created in no small part in response to the trafficking of children from the poor and rural areas of the country. In this light, the Spence-Chapin organization exalted in Nomani’s article is no better than the Holt International Adoption Agency of post-war Korea: Not a civilizing entity, but instead a gentle face put on a monstrous industry. That Morocco sees fit to participate in such trafficking should not be seen as a sign of its enlightenment. Quite the opposite.
Most important to note is how one-sided the adoption argument is in all of these cases. Adoptive parents and the agencies and industries that support them speak of adoption as being the given. This ignores all evidence to the contrary, but most importantly the growing number of voices of adoptees, mothers, fathers, extended families, and communities who are speaking out against adoption which has become simply another form of humanitarian imperialism. Whether in the lyrics of the Moroccan-born French rapper YAZ , the laws passed by Korean-American adoptees who have returned to their place of birth and have effectively halted adoption from that country as of this year, or the court writs of mothers in Guatemala who are suing to have their children repatriated to them from the United States, the tide is definitely turning against the ongoing efforts of those such as Nomani who would use adoption as a juggernaut against the Third World, and Islam more specifically. In an effort to paint adoption as a given, a marker of civilization, she and others like her revert to the worst tropes of colonialism, Orientalism, as well as Islamophobia.
The Subtleties: It’s All in the Language
The tactics used in this article that attempt to reframe the Qur’an as supportive of Nomani’s claim are disturbing, and they are also with precedence, mostly from within evangelical Christian circles. Comparative use of the Bible to allow missionary inroads into subordinate populations now finds its equivalent in those who would propound the Qur’an as advocating for the equivalent treatment of Muslim communities. On the Christian evangelical side, “adoption” is redefined to mean our relationship to Jesus (pbuh), and by extension, adopting a child is therefore to be seen as “Christ-like”. Nomani gives us the mirrored reflection of this when she states that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was himself “adopted”.
Nomani further follows this evangelical/missionary lead when she advocates the use of the Qur’an as supportive documentation for such efforts. In both cases, though, the logic used is hugely flawed. Learning Arabic these past seven years and reading Qur’an on a daily basis has given me an idea of what Aramaic might have been like in a purely conceptual sense, both being Semitic languages of the same region. Furthermore, Levantine Arabic differs from Standard Arabic in its use of Aramaic and Syriac words, and thus I am working with a wider possible vocabulary to make the following points. Based on this, I can state that the word used for the modern-day idea of “adoption” is most likely a conceptual back formation from the English or the French–a colonial hand-me-down–or at best is a completely metaphoric use, since it also carries the meaning similar to the English “to start using [something]”, as in “cell phone adoption”.
Most telling is that the word I use in Modern Standard Arabic to describe myself–mutabanna (vaguely, “en-son-ed”)–is not the same words translated in the Qur’an as “adopted”. One such term, translated as “adopted sons”–‘ad‘iya’akum–comes from a root that means to be claimed by, such as a townsperson is claimed by a town; they are an extension thereof, a part of a greater whole. Here we see a positive use of the term. Another word used in the Qur’an (itakhadha) means moreso “taken in”, as in this example from the story of Joseph: “perhaps he might benefit us or we might take him in as a son”. This is more like acquiring a boy servant than it is adopting a child into one’s family. More to the point, Joseph’s “adoption” comes after he is bartered “as a merchandise”, according to the Qur’anic description; furthermore the Qur’an is very explicit that these are temporary and invalidated situations, and here we might say that this is a negative use of the term.
Our analysis here is aided by the English use of “adoption” which has strayed from its original meaning as well, especially since we know that adoption conceptually within the Anglo-Saxon tradition was about indentured servitude, and not family creation. This is made most obvious to me by the fact that the use of this word only has currency within a certain class of the population here in Lebanon, which lives closer to a globalized and globalizing Anglo-Saxon model than anything locally relevant culturally speaking. For everyone else not of this stratum I cannot say “mutabanna“, I have to state that I was an “orphan” (‘atm), or that I was in an “orphanage” (dar al-‘aytam). My adoption, as understood locally, involving a “bartering of merchandise”, maps much more closely onto the example of Yusuf–seen as negative–than any other invocation that might be painted in a positive light.
The main point still holds true: The modern-day concept of adoption, as practiced in primarily first-world nations, has no precursor from Biblical times that would allow the imposition of this current notion on Biblical or Qur’anic readings or texts–it’s current use is a fabrication of modern-day needs and conceits. It thus becomes disturbing the lengths to which current interpreters of these Writs will go to twist the language and the stories to suit their purposes, such as the recent example found in the book Reclaiming Adoption, and now in this article by Nomani.
Comparatively speaking, and contrary to Nomani’s analysis, the Qur’an is extremely enlightening in this regard, if only because its language is unchanged and untranslated since its inception. Readings of the Qur’an reveal that its supreme invocation concerning orphans–representing the most vulnerable members of society–is that they be taken care of, that they remain within their community, that their filiation remain intact, that the community preserve their property until they should be of age to make use of it. This is very much in line with the given social fabric of the countries of this region, despite it being stretched to the breaking point by globalization and other foreign pressures.
But Nomani willfully leaves out the following, where the Qur’an also states: “None are their mothers save those who gave them birth” (–Al-Mujadalah, 58:2), and:
God did not give any man two hearts in his chest. Nor did He turn your wives whom you estrange (according to your custom) into your mothers. Nor did He turn your adopted children into genetic offspring. All these are mere utterances that you have invented. God speaks the truth, and He guides in the (right) path.
You shall give your adopted children names that preserve their relationship to their genetic parents. This is more equitable in the sight of God. If you do not know their parents, then, as your brethren in religion, you shall treat them as members of your family. You do not commit a sin if you make a mistake in this respect; you are responsible for your purposeful intentions. God is Forgiver, Most Merciful. –Al-Ahzab, 33:4‚Äì5
This call to communal care is offensive to Ms. Nomani and her advocates because it is preventing them from fulfilling their familial role as proscribed for them by Anglo-Saxon Capitalism, borrowing Margaret Thatcher’s maxim that there is no basis for society but the nuclear family. This way of seeing things is radically different from the majority of the planet that serves as source material for the wishes of those in the First World who plunder their children via adoption and surrogacy. This is best summed up by Mohammad Al-Haddad, after a scandal involving the kidnapping of Chadian children to France:
But why don’t the rich bother themselves with the poor? Now, we forbid immigration to poor adults, but we allow it for their children? All the same, to decide if a child can be adopted, we do not apply the same criteria in the West as in the Third World. In the West, the family is “nuclear”; the conditions that make a child adoptable are therefor the absence of a mother and father. In many African countries, on the other hand, the family is extended–that is to say it includes equally the grandparents, as well as maternal and paternal aunts and uncles: All work in solidarity to take care of the child. 
This lack of a strict concept of nuclear family on the scene where I find myself now, or anything outside of what is a given here–extended family and communal solidarity–explains the reaction of most of those who hear my story from this perspective: They apologize that I was removed from my family, my place, my land. They sympathize wholeheartedly with my efforts to re-establish an identity here and find family, because historically and culturally the notion of “adoption” or “guardianship” is, as locally understood, about the importance of place: One’s people, one’s house, one’s community. This is a welcome relief from the endless barrage of statements such as “you were chosen”, or “you are lucky” that most of us grew up hearing; furthermore, it explains why these tropes of being “chosen” or “lucky” are projected onto Biblical accounts, ignoring the historical context of the book and its cultural underpinnings.
The deceit of adoption revivalists is most revealed then by what they omit. In terms of the Bible, each and every invocation concerning the “fatherless” also contains within the same passage a call to care for widows and others who are unable to sustain themselves. Would not a logical conclusion of this be that the expectant mother–especially if she be single, or widowed–be afforded this same zealous care and protection?
In terms of the Qur’an, let’s re-examine the cited reference from the article, but in full this time:
And they will ask thee about orphans. Say: “To improve their condition is best.” And if you share their life, they are your brethren: For God distinguishes between the despoiler and the ameliorator. –The Cow, 2:219
This ayat from the Qur’an, in the deceptively abridged form put forth by Nomani, might support this Western modern-day notion of adoption, but only if one espouses supremacist ideas of certain cultures being better or more valid than others. Obviously, given the inability to read one ayat of the Qur’an out of the context of the whole, this is not valid. Everyone who is claimed to have been “adopted” in both the Bible and Qur’an, most notably Joseph (Yusuf) as mentioned, but also Moses (Moussa) (pbut), in fact pose a contrary argument to those who would read these Books so literally. For both were adopted against the wishes of their parents; their removal caused great anguish to their families; they did not start the true calling of their lives until they were returned to their rightful place, status, and people.
This is especially poignant in the Qur’anic story of Joseph, who is sold to and “taken in” by first a wealthy lord and then the king but whose destiny is to be returned to his family (note the class differential here). The Qur’anic story of Moses is even more pointed, when it states that Moses was taken in by “those who were his enemy, and the enemy of his people”. The Qur’an also forbids forced conversion, one of the primary motivating factors for missionary adoption practice historically speaking.
Analyzing the Qur’an even further, we can state that the removal of someone from their family is an ultimate act of self-inflicted alienation, since the only instances of such separation used in the Qur’an are metaphors for the punishment of removing oneself from the community of God–meaning, the result of one’s own sin. Thus you have the son of Noah (Noh) drowned, the wife of Lot (Loteh) left behind and destroyed, the progeny of Abraham (Ibrahim) as being “on their own” in terms of their deeds and the judgment thereof, etc. The point being that such a separation–as punishment–supercedes the strong familial bond otherwise implied. How then, could there be a willful separation of child from parent, condoned by God at that?
The concept that the orphan should be removed from a given community, however justified, only reveals the moral bankruptcy of those whose primary concern is, in fact, their own nuclear family, their own salvation that might come at the expense of others now “saved”, as well as what is left unsaid in these works: the desired conversion of the heathen multitudes; their civilization, modernization, and the end of the barbarian ways.
This is nowhere more clear than here in Lebanon, where the sordid history of children trafficked from the south and Palestine is starting to come to light. By my observations into paperwork in my orphanage, I can safely say that a full 40 to 50 percent of infants circulating through my orphanage were from Muslim families, myself likely included. Based on stories I know from other countries and locally, as well taking into consideration the Islamic concept of the orphanage, I can state that many of the parents of these children had no idea that they would never see their infants again. In this way missionary and classist disdain for the religion of these children and their families is a prime motivator in their being targeted for adoption/conversion in the first place, despite protests to the contrary.
This brings us back to the originating efforts of those such as Pearl S. Buck who saw the world through this particularly noisome lens of colonialism, conversion, oppression, and universalism. Given that this same Anglo-Saxon culture has done nothing to alleviate poverty, racism, classism, and mono-culturalism on its own home front much less in the world at large, why should anyone believe that it truly desires to improve conditions elsewhere in the world? Can we really imagine a God who would allow some of his gerents on Earth to wage economic and political wars on others, and then claim some state of grace in adopting their children away from them? How is this different from the Romans enslaving the children of the peoples they conquered, if we want a more relevant Biblical analogy?
One of the greatest ironies of Islamophobia is the projection onto Islam of the failures of Western society. Here it is no different. The communal culture that needs to be broken down to make way for individualized/nuclear family-based Capitalism now extends to abducting children from the Arab and Muslim world, now that most of the other supply countries (including the First World’s internal poverty belt) are finally making the morally right decision in preventing their children from being exported wholesale. That Nomani would take such a literal view of the words of the Qur’an in fact reveals her to be the regressive one. We should, as people of good faith, be doing everything in our power to keep families together, and to prevent the conditions of war, poverty, and illiteracy that do more to promote the ills of the world that are decried in this article than any nascent putative extremism. The “charlatans” of Islamophobia wreak more injustice with their words and deeds than any boasted threat that might come from Muslims worldwide.
There is no innocence or objectivity in terms of supporting foreign policies of bombing, pillaging, and marauding, while simultaneously pretending to advocate for “orphans”, and using the Holy Books to support this worldview. Indeed, the only “antiquated, shortsighted, and regressive stricture[s]” that need be undone are those of Imperialism as we live it today. If we are truly hoping to “save the children”, then the despoilers of Nomani’s ilk should stand up as the class and community of power that they are and change the foreign policy of their governments. There is no evidence to support adoption as being a cure-all of any kind, indeed, Ms. Nomani is one in a long line of pyromaniac firefighters who don’t know how horribly they reek of gasoline. Her pretense of speaking for women is offensive to those who work locally via religious, charitable, or civil organizations in order to keep families and communities together. But most of all, she offends those mothers that she finds no common cause with in an egregious classism masked by a selfish and narcissistic career-building Islamophobia.
Any examination of human trafficking in the world points a very accusatory finger and paints a very scathing picture of the majority of First-World nations; this is where religious references might best be applied first–and then the “orphan” problem will take care of itself. Those with an axe to grind concerning Islam such as Nomani would do better than to hide their phobic attitudes behind institutions such as adoption, the actions of which have very real consequences for those of us removed from our place, our families, our communities, our culture, and our faith. For such supposed saving grace is always resented by those on whom it is imposed against their will. And the reaped fruit of such crimes is just as bitter.
Daniel Ibn Zayd was adopted in 1963 and returned definitively to his land of birth in 2004; there he teaches art and illustration and in 2009 founded the artists’ collective Jamaa Al-Yad. He has written for CounterPunch, The Monthly Review Zine, and The Design Altruism Project, as well as on his blog: danielibnzayd.wordpress.com. He is a contributor to Transracial Eyes, a web-based collective of transracial adoptees. He can be reached at @ibnzayd on Twitter and by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.