Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami

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"Faith" Summary and Analysis

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Lalami’s narrative moves forward to 2015 and describes a reading she gave from her novel The Moor’s Account at a literary organization in Arizona. A woman in the audience began questioning her about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Lalami reflects on how the usual view of Muslims in America seems to be confined to questions about terrorism and is based on stereotypical views of Muslims promoted by the media. More than one person at the literary gathering was surprised that Lalami doesn’t fit these stereotypes. One attendee asked, presumably referring to Muslims in general, “Why aren’t we hearing from people like you?”

Lalami’s mother was born in 1941, when Morocco was still a French colony. She was placed in a Roman Catholic orphanage and school and, despite her Muslim background, was instructed in Christianity by Franciscan nuns. In 1956, when Morocco gained its independence, the Moroccan girls were discharged from the school and told now to practice “their own” religion. Even after Lalami’s mother married a man she meets at a “coffee date,” she maintained connections with both religions, Islam and Christianity. 

Lalami’s paternal grandmother was from a small town sixty miles north of Marrakesh. After marrying Lalami’s grandfather, the two moved to Rabat, the city where Lalami was born. From both her mother and grandmother, Lalami absorbed “faith,” something she describes as distinct from religion. For her, faith is “a private relationship with the cosmic.” It is only when she became a teenager that religion became a factor in Lalami’s life. Religion governed her relationships with others. She now could not be seen “with boys who weren’t my schoolmates.” 

Religion also dictates the greater power men have and the rights they have that women don’t, such as their rights to inherit wealth and to file for divorce. Within the Arab world, there were nevertheless secular, political forces at work, but at the same time the Moroccan King Hasan—like other rulers in the Islamic world—courted the religious authorities as a counterbalance to the left-wing forces that attempted to topple him. During Lalami’s years in school, more and more young women began wearing the headscarf. By the 1990s, after Lalami had moved to the United States, Morocco had become somewhat more democratic, though King Hasan continued to hold power and there was still corruption at the local and central levels of government. 

The complex history of Islam—and the fact that Muslims have been a part of the history of the American continent since the sixteenth century—are completely unknown to most Americans, Lalami observes. That many of the enslaved Africans brought to America were Muslim is also largely unacknowledged. Though some of the men left written accounts, Lalami notes that the women who were enslaved and brought to America are preserved in the historical record “only as commodities, as lines in sale and transfer ledgers, never as human stories.” As one exception, however, Lalami cites a woman named Silvia King, who in an oral narrative recorded by the 1936 Federal Writers’ Project said she had been born in Morocco, drugged and taken to France, and then sold into slavery in New Orleans. It’s also possible that the 18th-century poet Phyllis Wheatley was originally of Muslim background. 

Lalami realizes that she was asked about ISIS at the book reading probably because the woman speaking to her knew nothing else to ask about. Explaining the origin of ISIS, Lalami notes that it was founded by a Jordanian man who had gone to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight against the Soviet occupiers; at this time, the mujahideen were being funded...

(This entire section contains 1317 words.)

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by the Reagan administration. This man, later known as al-Zarqawi, returned to Jordan, was jailed and released, and then traveled to Iraq when the US-initiated war there began in 2003. Al-Zarqawi was killed “in a US strike” in 2006, but the group he founded, “Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” survived as ISIS and “gained a foothold in Syria” when civil war broke out there. 

Lalami is questioned about ISIS, but she wonders whether a white writer who has authored a historical novel about early America be questioned about the KKK. She notes that as a Muslim, she isn’t being looked at as an individual but as a kind of “specimen” of a group considered mysterious or dangerous. Far from defending ISIS, Lalami says  that they promote a distorted view of Islam, requiring absolute submission to their agenda and to an extreme form of the religion. She notes that a person such as herself, who is Muslim but does not observe the strict dietary laws, wear a headscarf, or follow other religious edicts, lives in a gray zone. Thus, she is misunderstood by ill-informed Americans on the one hand and by extremists, such as ISIS, on the other. Her life is a combination of elements from “both worlds.”

Lalami stresses that her “gray life is not unique.” Many people live in the intersections between different religions, cultural backgrounds, languages, and ways of life. Yet violence, in the form of terrorism or warfare, causes “battle lines” to be drawn. Often, people in the middle, in the gray zone, are targeted. It’s not enough that people passively reject absolutist views of other people, she asserts. It has to be an active process in which, in a multiethnic and multireligious country such as the United States, coexistence is sought through personal interaction or through “exposure to works of imagination”—in other words, through reading and culture. Lalami closes the chapter with an observation that when her daughter tells her that she wants to be president someday, Lalami cannot express any optimism about this hope, given the conditional status with which Muslims in the United States still have to live. 


Much of this chapter is a meditation on Lalami’s own history, on the history of Muslims in America, and on the attitudes the majority of Americans still hold towards Islam and people of Muslim background.

Those attitudes are based more on an absence of knowledge and informed ideas, she says, than on anything concrete or definite, even in a negative sense. It’s typical of the conditionality of her belonging in American society that in doing a reading before a literary club from an historical novel she has written, Lalami is asked about ISIS. It’s as if the only thing the attendees can think to ask about is terrorism, simply because Lalami is of Muslim background. Lalami is what many would regard as a basically secular Muslim. Yet even if she were observant, it still would have been largely irrelevant for her to be asked about terrorism, given that her novel was about an entirely different subject.

A central theme of the book is the mixing of cultures. Lalami stresses that her own upbringing and recent family history have been a combination of elements from both Islam and Christianity, as well as from Arabic and French cultures. Morocco itself represents an amalgamation of different cultural elements, with a Europan influence alongside its traditional Arabic and Muslim history. 

In the United States, Lalami asserts, little is known about Islam or Muslims simply because a narrow, often caricatured view of Muslims is presented to Americans through the news and through popular media such as films. An irony lies in the fact that for decades the United States intervened in Muslim countries through the propping up of leaders and through warfare. Yet Americans in general, she says, are unwilling to accept Muslims as more than the conditional citizens Lalami and others feel themselves to be. Interestingly, Lalami doesn’t linger on the fact that US intervention in Muslim countries during the Cold War actually facilitated the creation of forces that would later oppose the United States, but it is arguably a subtext of her analysis of American military and political actions.


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