On Orphans, Adoption, and Islam

This article responds to Yusra Gomaa’s piece on altM, Placing Muslim orphans into real homes.

In 1961, Frantz Fanon wrote his seminal work The Wretched of the Earth. In the section of the book entitled “On National Culture”, he indicts the colonial system of both his native Martinique as well as his adopted Algeria. In a very striking metaphor, he condemns those he refers to as “native intellectuals”, comparing them to adopted children:

The intellectual who is Arab and French, or Nigerian and English, when he comes up against the need to take on two nationalities, chooses, if he wants to remain true to himself, the negation of one of these determinations. But most often, since they cannot or will not make a choice, [they]…take up a fundamentally “universal standpoint”.

This is because the native intellectual has thrown himself greedily upon Western culture. Like adopted children who only stop investigating the new family framework at the moment when a minimum nucleus of security crystallizes in their psyche, the native intellectual will try to make European culture his own. [emphasis mine]

It is an intriguing reference, one that does not appear elsewhere in his work. Here, Fanon is describing a very particular power differential, found on both the familial and colonial levels. He explains that the native intellectual and the adopted child, in attempting to make sense of their alien (and alienating) environments, will be compelled to choose a path of least resistance that is illogical (in terms of their source) and decidedly not introspective (in terms of their selves). The comfort of an arrived-to class position is thus made equivalent to the safety of an adoptive family.

This makes sense on many levels. But before we unpack this reference further, we might first ask ourselves: Who are these adopted children Fanon is referring to? Previously, I imagined he was speaking about Islamic orphanages in Algeria, perhaps pointing out informal kinship practices from those days. Recent research points to the likelihood that Fanon was, in fact, referencing French orphanages in Algeria at the time, and the practice of kidnapping children from hospitals to be adopted to French families. The conversion mission, in countries such as Egypt[1], Lebanon, and Algeria, anticipates the historical use of adoption to similar ends. The practice involved the removal of children from their “backwards” roots, provided an upbringing in a “civilized” environment, and thus assured their “salvation” via conversion. The practice was even mimicked by those targeted. The Antoura orphanage in Lebanon, for example, was sequestered by the Ottomans in order to “Turkify” Armenian “orphans” in the country[2]. The point here being that the concepts of orphanage and adoption, which usually evoke ideas of charity and beneficence, unfortunately also denote a history of euthanasia, eugenics, and class warfare.

This defines a period of time previous to adoption’s later marketing as purely a means of family creation. The targets of such adoption remained nonetheless the poor, often of minority ethnic, religious, or political factions within a nation-state. Francisco Franco’s fascist Phalangists in Spain, for example, were responsible for the kidnapping of children (estimates range up to 300,000) from the political left wing and the underclasses of that country. Given the political turmoil of a decolonizing world in the late 50s and early 60s, it makes sense that this tactic would have been perpetrated elsewhere if not everywhere, including in Fanon’s Algeria. The practice is well-known to those who have followed the history of Indigenous peoples in former Anglo-Saxon colonies such as the United States, Canada, and Australia. Dorothy Roberts brought this idea to bear on black communities in the United States in terms of adoption and foster care[3]. Soon after the publishing of Fanon’s book, children from Réunion were sent in the thousands to populate a rural France on the wane. In the 60s and 70s, multiple thousands of children were airlifted out of Yemen and Viet Nam, to serve the public relations needs of warring nation-states. Current scandals of mass graves in Tuam, Ireland, as well as the infamous “Butterbox Babies” of Nova Scotia, reveal not aberrations and exceptional cases, but the true face and intent of such “positive eugenics”, as well as the actual role of adoption historically speaking.

This true nature forces us to proceed very carefully before glibly suggesting adoption as the “be all and end all” of progressive social practices. Recent articles in both The Islamic Monthly and altMuslimah have attempted to do just this. I would like to give the benefit of the doubt to the authors that they are speaking in good faith and with well-meant intentions. But it needs to be pointed out that this is a continuation of a very tried and true propaganda tactic that I have examined at great length. To summarize, I define the discourse proposing adoption as a “progressive solution” to “orphans” in Muslim-majority countries as Islamophobic[4]. This advocacy, similar to that of the preceding century, is designed to denigrate particular populations, now defined as “barbaric”, in an effort to open them up to outside political and economic intervention, if not dissolution and extermination.

To note is that much of this propaganda comes from those with vested interests in the adoption industry itself, or who live as “native intellectuals”, far removed from those they target with their musings. The profit motive behind adoption should preclude such biased opinion from appearing in respectable journals of record. Furthermore, the “improvement” they evoke–that the adopted child remains within her religious community–is more of a marketing ploy than a concern for the faith of the infant in question. The true concern remains the needs of adopting parents and the nation-states taking care of a burdensome socio-political problem. More importantly, extremely complex issues loom beyond this quite reductive framing and seeming solution to current social ills. These issues need be summarized in the interest of brevity, but at the heart of the matter are conceptions of family, community, as well as political and economic equality.

In terms of family, the pro-adoption discourse frames the discussion in terms of an individual child and a “needed” home, or a child and a “needed” family.  Tweet This! But we must be clear that here we are talking about a private “home” and a nuclear “family” in the economic sense, not in the community and extended-family senses as much of the world understands and lives these terms socio-culturally speaking. These conceits contrast starkly with informal kinship practices, often referred to academically and popularly using terms such as “the circulation of children”, or “familias de criacão”. It should come as no surprise that historically speaking, similar targeting of the poor and the communally minded served as the bases for rather nefarious social experimentation–from the Orphan Trains and Home Children to the Lebensborn program and the Magdalena Laundries–and continues to form the driving force of most adoption practice today.

Most troubling concerning this discourse when it comes from Muslims is that references to the orphan from the Qur’ān are quite numerous, and quite telling, in the completely contrary parable that they would elaborate in this regard. On a purely linguistic level, the word used for adoption in Modern Standard Arabic, mutabanna–most likely a back formation from English and French–is not used to mean “adopted” in the Qur’ān. There are, in fact, two terms translated similarly to mean “adoption”. The first, ad‘iya’a, comes from a root meaning “to be claimed by or advocated for,” such as a townsperson is claimed socially by a town. Etymologically speaking, the one so referenced is an unpossessed extension of the one claiming; a literal incorporation; a part of an expansive communal whole that cannot be individually separated out.

The second term found in the Qur’ān translated as “adopted” is itakhadha which means “taken in,” as is found in the story of Joseph (puh). In Joseph’s story, the phrase “as a son” in the familial sense takes a back seat to what the verb actually implies: the indenturing of a much more “useful” boy servant. To this point, Joseph’s “adoption” is described in stark economic terms. He was “hidden as a merchandise” and then “sold for a paltry sum” as he was “given no value”. This more negative notion of the term can be readily applied to adoption as it has been practiced historically speaking, and most closely maps onto the Anglo-Saxon concept of adoption currently being advocated for by Muslims of a certain class position. Disturbingly, we can also find an evocation of this idea in their practice of kafala which refers to both “guardianship” but is more often used as a means to provide de facto slavery. This reveals a particular economic course taken by Islam over the years that, it can be argued, runs counter to its very core ideals.

To note further is that those claimed to have been “adopted” in both the Bible and Qur’ān–most notably Joseph as mentioned, but also Moses (puh)–pose the counter-argument to literal and reductive readings of these Books. In narrative terms, both were “taken in” against the wishes of their parents. Their removal caused great anguish to their families. The return to “source” was the anticipated denouement of their journeys. Finally, they did not start the true calling of their lives until they were returned to their rightful place, status, and people. It is interesting to see how this view from the “other side” of the adoption transaction is completely obfuscated if not absent from current adoption mythology as promoted by the adoption industry.

These aspects are especially poignant in the Qur’ānic story of Joseph  Tweet This!, who is sold to and “taken in” by first a wealthy lord and then the king. Given Joseph’s eventual reunion with his family, his servitude as well as his rise to power must be seen as temporary and invalid situations, not solutions to his plight. This forces an interesting re-examination of class difference, and contrasts with “Western” adoption mythologies that premise a “better life” for adopted children. The Qur’ānic story of Moses is even more pointed. Moses was taken in by “those who were his enemy, and the enemy of his people,” and his narrative includes his wet-nursing by his own mother (Ta’ Ha’, 20:40[6]). Here, familial reference is made to his biological sister. Likewise, importance is ascribed to his mother and, more strikingly, her loss. For all intents and purposes, such binding references remain missing from the “Western” mythologies of adoption. These mythologies are quite extensive, and range from notions of the equilateral adoption “triad” and disparaging terms such as “birth mother” to the facts of amended birth certificates and falsified identifying information.

In terms of community, the discourse of the previously cited articles is faulty in that it offers up a stark and false binary of either “adoption” or “horrific institutionalized care”. To note is that this trope was (and still is) used against the former republics of the Soviet Union, another enemy as seen by overzealous adoption practitioners. I do not wish to imply that the Islamic orphanage system is ideally implemented, quite the contrary. Stories of abuse, as well as the practice of marketing “orphans” during major holidays, should both shock and enrage us. Implied by this ijtihad and exegesis of the Qur’ān is the realization that a failure of one orphanage is, in fact, a failure of society as a whole. All the same, examples do exist of orphanage systems that take care of children through university, affording such children a valid entry into society, with none of the usual stigma attached to them[5]. The communities of these orphanages adhere to the Qur’anic proscriptions that children should know their filiation, should keep their names, and should stay within their communities. The question remains: Why do our adoption advocates not make reference to them, instead of showing us endless rows of “neglected” children in cribs? Is there not something insidious and unstated in this obvious “throwing themselves greedily upon Western culture”?

In terms of equality, I will quote Elizabeth Bartholet, an advocate of adoption, who nonetheless states:

It can be viewed as the ultimate in the kind of exploitation inherent in every adoption, namely the taking by the rich and powerful of the children born to the poor and powerless  Tweet This!. It tends to involve the adoption by the privileged classes in the industrialized nations of the children of the least privileged groups in the poorest nations….[6]

This brings us back to Fanon and our previously elaborated power differentials. It should be clear at this point that those who advocate for adoption as a solution see things from a particular class stratum; from one side of a power divide. A truly Islamic perspective would be one of empathy and justice for all involved; an understanding of the situation of the child’s parents, family, and community; an attempt to provide a holistic and communal solution to what is obviously an ever-present social issue. We start to see this more charitable view in particular orphanage systems but also in concepts of foster care and informal kinship practices, care for single mothers, advocacy for family preservation, and so on. This is what the Qur’ān evokes in its metaphorical elaboration of orphans as being the weakest members of society. As an adoptee, I take great comfort in its comparatively speaking civilized and progressive viewpoint.

And so we must ask ourselves: Is adoption really the answer? Is that truly the best that we can do as a society? Both Fanon in his lived Muslim context and the Qur’ān give us the obvious answer to these questions.

I would further argue that we must simultaneously re-evaluate our ideas of society, of community, and our understanding of family in order to see where we have failed in this regard  Tweet This!. For adoption is not the sign of a beneficent and charitable society. Quite on the contrary, it is the manifestation of a sick and decrepit one. For the half century or so that adoption has been practiced as a means of family creation, and the half century before that of targeted social experimentation, forced migration, and genocidal intent, the greater problems of inequality, poverty, hunger, and communal breakdown still remain. It may be palliative to place Band-Aids on the dying patient, but this is a prescription based entirely in quackery, bogus panaceæ, and self-delusion.

Furthermore, it is possible today to point to the great strides made by those who raise their voices against historical adoption practices. For example, we can point to the abuelas of Spain, Argentina, and Chile who demonstrate to find their children and grandchildren. We can point to those in Lebanon and many other countries demanding justice for the disappeared, which by rights should include the adopted. We can point to the resistance of Moroccan adoptees to France such as the rap artist YÀZ, whose faith allowed him to survive the search for his roots. Resistance to adoption has existed as long as adoption as we understand it today has existed. From the turn of the last century, when impoverished mothers in Britain in the hopes of being reunited sewed scraps of cloth to the garments of their absconded-with children destined for the foundling hospitals, to the Facebook pages of sign-holding adoptees seeking their mothers, adoption discourse must account for this other side of the argument. If it doesn’t, than it is inherently invalid, and not worthy of journalistic focus. We are obliged to understand this resistance, as opposed to dismissing it out of hand, for this understanding–indeed, this challenging of the status quo–will be a first great step forward toward justice in this world[8].

Coming back to our Frantz Fanon quote, perhaps a further explanation of his rather elliptical reference in The Wretched of the Earth is due. I recently came across a “family search” web site in which Algerians from the early 60s attempt to find original family. Some are looking for their mothers; some are seeking siblings; all evoke rather innocuously the great crime that was their kidnapping and adoption so many years ago from French-run hospitals and institutions. Fanon, shaped by his years working in revolutionary Algeria, was pointing a finger at the exploitative colonial practices of the time, and this included the trafficking of children under the seeming charity of the rubrik “adoption”. For the record, and based on realities coming to light in Lebanon, I sense that this is likely my case here as well. And thus my focus on Fanon’s evocation of the importance of family, community, and place. His words echo in no small way our understanding of the Qur’ān as concerns those who, in the times of Ignorance, were abandoned or much worse. Families who adopt are thus complicit in what can only be referred to as a formalized criminal act of familial and communal violence.

To conclude, in 1948 the United Nations defined an aspect of genocide to include “forcibly transferring children of [one] group to another group”.[9] In current academic discourse, the concept of genocide has evolved to incorporate the idea of genocidal intent that might not be overtly homicidal, but which is designed to lead to the same end[10]. Adoption practices both historically and in terms of the current day fit this notion rather disturbingly. Even if we firmly believe in adoption and its possible reform, these roots of the practice and their current manifestations must be brought to light and deliberated. Furthermore, overlaps in current practice with the historically targeted use of adoption against those seen as not politically embodied, as well as its profitable nature and its legal origins within slavery and indentured servitude, all must give us great pause. To believe that adoption has corrected itself, that it has been reformed or is reformable, is to deceive ourselves in a most solipsistic way.

In the name of all those seeking roots and origins, of all who are displaced, dispossessed, and disinherited by current political and economic realities, indeed, in the name of all of those who currently strive for justice in this world, it is imperative that those of good faith take a long hard look at what exactly they are advocating for when they speak of adoption. For if we promote a practice and an industry that soothes our ego but doesn’t challenge much less change our reality, and thus end up decidedly and egregiously on the wrong side of history, we are no more than “native intellectuals” refusing to take a just stand. To be true to oneself, to question one’s place within an alien and alienating status quo is a painful process, to be sure. But we must not allow ourselves to be comforted by the “sense of security” afforded us by the luxury and privilege of our social class. The illogic of such a stance is only surpassed by the lack of introspection concerning our place in this realm, as well as our relationship and duty to others. At the very least we should have the temerity and honesty to not define adoption as charitable, beneficent, or just. For this remains an even greater offense, and a hypocrisy of the highest order.

[1] Baron, B. (2014). The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
[2] Deringil, S. (2016). Antoura. The Ottoman History Podcast: Retrieved from https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/ottoman-history-podcast/id513808150?mt=2#episodeGuid=tag%3Asoundcloud%2C2010%3Atracks%2F260197518
[3] Roberts, D. The racial geography of child welfare: Toward a new research paradigm. Child Welfare, 87(2):125–150, 2008.
[4] Drennan, D. (2015). Islamophobia and adoption: Who are the civilized? Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 24(1), 7–25.
[5] Bargach, J. (2002). Orphans of Islam: Family, abandonment, and secret adoption in Morocco. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
[6] Khalidi, T. (2008). The Qur’an: A new translation. New York: Viking.
[7] Bartholet, E. (1993). International Adoption: Current Status and Future Prospects. The Future of Children: Adoption, 3(1), 90.
[8] Drennan, D. (2014, September). Adoption resistance: Bridging false divides. Gazillion Voices. Retrieved from http://gazillionvoices.com/on-adoption-resistance-bridging-false-divides/
[9] Card, C. Genocide and social death. Hypatia, 18(1):63–79, Winter 2003.
[10] Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG)

Daniel Drennan was adopted via Lebanon to the United States at the age of two months. In 2004 he returned seeking family and nationality, and has taught graphic design and illustration at various Beirut universities. His writing on adoption has appeared locally in Al-Akhbar and Legal Agenda newspapers. He is currently a research fellow at the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut. He also works as a special advisor to the NGO Badael (badael-alternatives.org) on issues of adoption and adoptee return. His writing on adoption can be found at: danielibnzayd.wordpress.com


Photo Credit: rey0920

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