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?”

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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 by the Reagan administration. This man, later known as al-Zarqawi, returned to Jordan, was jailed and released, and...

(The entire section contains 1317 words.)

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