Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami

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Much of Conditional Citizens is an attempt to examine and understand why the United States, with its stated ideal of equality for all, is a country where all do not possess equal citizenship and where their equality is incomplete based on a number of conditions that are alleged to separate groups of people from one another.

Her analysis is done against the backdrop of American history. In particular she focuses on recent history, approximately the two decades since Lalami herself became a United States citizen in 2000. The events occurring from the September 11 attacks to Donald Trump’s presidency place the conditional elements of citizenship into relief and can, to a degree, be seen as a regression in the arc of America’s development as an equal society. But seen from another perspective, these events simply highlight certain elements of American society that have always been dysfunctional.

Given her position as a naturalized, rather than native-born, citizen and her status as a woman of Arab descent and Muslim background, Lalami is in a position to understand the elements of discrimination better than most Americans are. Some readers might assert that the problems she alludes to in the United States exist in a worse form in other countries, including her native Morocco. But if this is leveled as a criticism, it is not a compelling one. First, Lalami is not attempting to defend other countries, including the country of her birth. She acknowledges the historical problems that have existed there and that still persist. But Morocco is not the subject of her book—the United States is. And because the United States is a country that was explicitly founded upon an ideal of equality and democracy, the lack of fulfillment of those ideals is a valid subject for examination and criticism. If Lalami is critical of the United States, it is because she cares about her country and wishes its flaws to be corrected. Throughout the book, one senses her devotion to her adopted country. Indeed, if one truly loves America, one should wish to make America good, not blindly accept it as it is. Her analysis is in many ways a refutation of the old attitude that one should embrace one’s country precisely as it is. 

One thread that ties together the themes of Conditional Citizens is the fact of individuals being seen in terms of a group identity. Such group identities can confirm fears the majority has of those who are different, or they can be used as leverage by which one group intends to assert dominance over another. Especially in the wake of September 11 and during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Lalami has found that Americans identify Muslims in general with terrorism. For example, at a book reading, people questioned her about ISIS, even though neither she nor her book have anything to do with that subject. 

A corollary of such stereotyping is an insensitivity that seems rooted in a belief that people who are different don’t have the same feelings as others. A customs agent asks Lalami’s husband, jokingly, “How many camels did you have to trade in for her?” The incident exemplifies a Western stereotypical idea about people of Arab descent, as well as a total lack of awareness that the remark is offensive and callous. 

The fact that underpins these incidents and attitudes, unfortunately, is that many Americans still seem to cling to the notion, at least subconsciously, that the United States is a country for white, Christian people in which men are to hold the real power. Others are granted a marginalized or conditional...

(This entire section contains 919 words.)

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status in the social framework. To examine these notions, Lalami pays special attention to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the significance of Trump’s success. Though discriminatory and bigoted attitudes have always been prevalent in American culture, Trump has expressed them far more openly and crudely than politicians typically have, as Lalami notes. He and his administration have had the explicit intention of keeping people such as Mexicans and Muslims out of the country, using the pretext that such people are inherently bad and given to criminality. But the real reason, she asserts, is that nonwhites and non-Christians, in the thinking of Trump and his followers, do not really belong in America. 

Perhaps the most striking part of Lalami’s book involves her examination of the concept of race itself. As a person of Arab descent, when Lalami fills out forms that ask one to identify one’s race, she is in a somewhat anomalous position. Arabs are officially considered white. But the reasons for this have more to do with historical and religious factors—namely that most of the earlier Arab immigrants to the United States were Christian rather than Muslim—than with skin color. Given the continuum of gradations of color in humanity—the unbroken spectrum of skin tones that exists—the whole concept of race is a provisional construct developed for the purpose of empowering one set of people over others. In some ways, the fiction of race is analogous to the false notions still believed in by much of American society regarding religion, gender, and poverty: Christianity has been considered superior to other religions, men have been considered superior to women, and poor people are considered inferior to the wealthy. Lalami’s book is a powerful indictment of these falsehoods and a profound examination of what is needed to change the situation and transform America into a truly equal society.