Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami
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Conditional Citizens Summary

Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami is a 2020 nonfiction book about how American society withholds true citizenship to many of its people, despite its ideal of perfect equality.

  • Lalami discusses her own experiences as an American woman from Morocco with a Muslim background. Her optimism upon being naturalized in 2000 has since been diminished by great evidence of intolerance.
  • Lalami draws on recent American history to show how certain forms of intolerance are allowed to thrive in American society in ways that are both explicit and subtle. She addresses intolerance towards religious and racial minorities, women, and the poor.

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Conditional Citizens deals with the subject of how certain people and groups are marginalized or not given the full rights and entitlements of others in the United States. The book also contains a more general commentary on how this phenomenon persists in the world as a whole, but the author primarily focuses on American society.

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The chapter titles indicate elements of this “conditionality” of citizenship: Allegiance, Faith, Borders, Assimilation, Tribe, Caste, and Inheritance. Each of these topics relates to characteristics that seem, Lalami asserts, to be required of citizens in the United States in order for their citizenship to be complete and unconditional. From her personal perspective, Lalami finds that all of these categories create an exclusivity, a denial of complete or unqualified citizenship to many people, including herself.

Lalami came to the United States from her native Morocco in the early 1990s to attend graduate school in California, and she eventually became a professor of foreign languages. The book opens with the naturalization ceremony in the summer of 2000, the moment she became a US citizen. Subsequent events, however, have shown her that her citizenship is a conditional one: Ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and other factors restrict her from a complete acceptance into American culture. The September 11 attacks, for instance, resulted in an anti-Muslim mood in the country. As a Muslim herself, though a basically secular and nonobservant one, Lalami has sensed great judgement directed against her. She has felt, too, that she cannot question the American response to the attacks—the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq—without being harshly criticized by others. A more recent and related phenomenon is the “birther movement,” in which, for no reason apart from his color, Barack Obama’s American birth and Christian faith were called into question. Lalami notes that even when Obama was defended by his opponent John McCain, McCain did so for the wrong reasons, declaring Obama a good family man but not saying that even if Obama were a Muslim, it should make no difference.

Lalami finds herself stereotyped even by apparently well-meaning people in the United States, who seem to think that simply because she is of Muslim background, she should be explaining “terrorism” at a book reading, even when her book has nothing to do with that subject. Though the United States has had decades of involvement in military and political events in Muslim countries, Lalami indicates that the US public is generally ignorant about Islam, associating it almost exclusively with terrorism and the negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in the media.

A related subject is the concept of borders and the way in which the United States has extended both the physical barriers between itself and Mexico and has increased internal policing of people who are deemed “foreign.” Lalami’s observation is that borders have taken on a racialized meaning for Americans.

Lalami asserts that the demand in American society that newcomers commit themselves to assimilation is, to some extent, the result of the same type of racial and prejudicial thinking. Assimilation is...

(The entire section contains 999 words.)

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