Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami

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Conditional Citizens Themes

The main themes in Conditional Citizens are otherness, ignorance of history, race as fiction, and perceptions of poverty.

  • Otherness: Lalami shows how groups that stand apart from the dominant cultural group in a given society tend to face discrimination.
  • Ignorance of History: The book shows how Americans’ ignorance of history often leads to dangerous and false assumptions.
  • Race as Fiction: Lalami questions the validity and concreteness of racial categories, showing how arbitrary they can be.
  • Perceptions of Poverty: The book compares the judgmental American view of the poor to other cultures’ more nuanced views.


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 988


Though Lalami does not directly use the term “otherness,” it is a concept that is central to Conditional Citizens. Otherness describes the experience of being different from—and being treated differently from—the dominant group within a society. As a naturalized United States citizen who is female, Muslim, and, as some would perceive her, nonwhite, Lalami is in a unique position to examine the phenomenon of otherness as it occurs in American society.

Indeed, Lalami examines the intersecting ways in which humans judge those who are other as inferior to the majority. Conditional Citizens places this dynamic in historical context. Though the United States was founded based on the assertion that all men are created equal, in reality only some have been equal—at the start, only white men who owned property. The past 244 years have been a gradual process of expansion of equality. But not only has this process occurred in fits and starts, there have been significant periods of reaction against it. Deliberate efforts are still made to regard those who are nonwhite, non-Christian, and non-male as separate from—and less than—those who are accorded full rights. The Trump administration and its specific targeting of Mexicans and others for exclusion is an ominous sign that whatever progress the United States has made, it still marginalizes large segments of the human community on the basis of otherness.

Ignorance of History

In Conditional Citizens, Lalami suggests that the United States marginalizes people partly because Americans are unaware of their own history. At a luncheon where Lalami was reading from her latest book, a historical novel called The Moor’s Account, people began asking her about terrorism, since it is a topic they associate with Muslims due to stereotypes. Her book has nothing to do with terrorism; rather, it describes the first Muslim who crossed the American continent in the sixteenth century. Lalami notes that tens of thousands of African Muslims were among the enslaved people brought to America. This comes as news to many of her readers, for most Americans seem to have no idea that Muslims have been a significant part of the history of their own country. 

Americans are similarly ignorant about the history of American involvement in the Middle East and the Arab world. British and American governments have propped up various kings and political leaders in Muslim counties, including Lalami’s native Morocco. Yet when the September 11 attacks occurred, few Americans contextualized the attacks into this broader history. Rather, American have tended to look at contemporary events in a vacuum, without awareness of the past factors responsible for them. Lalami shows how such ignorance of history allows for bigotry and discrimination by obscuring context and causality.

Race as Fiction

Race is one of the principal identity factors upon which discrimination and perceptions of otherness are based. Yet the whole concept of race is unscientific and artificial.

The tenuous status of people of Arab descent as white or nonwhite illustrates the fictional nature of these identities. For example, Lalami checks both the “white” and “black” boxes regarding her racial identity on an official form, saying that this will confer upon her an in-between status. The United States government officially categorizes people of Arab descent as white. But the usual view in the public consciousness, whether it’s openly stated or not, is that “white” is more or less synonymous with “European.” Even people from certain areas of Europe, such as the Mediterranean, have at certain points in history been considered nonwhite or “insufficiently white.” Lalami points out that the justice system in the United States originally classified Arabs...

(This entire section contains 988 words.)

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as white partly because many of the earlier immigrants from the Arab countries were Christian rather than Muslim. As with other phenomena Lalami observes, this is a kind of intersection of the different identity markers—in this case, race and religion—that have been used to evaluate citizens and, in turn, either accept or marginalize them. Altogether, Lalami compellingly lays out the case that the concept of race is fictional rather than factual. 

Perceptions of Poverty

Lalami addresses the subject of poverty partly because it is tied into the notion of American exceptionalism. Though Lalami does not deny that in her native Morocco, there is a huge and discriminatory gap between rich and poor, she believes it is only in America that people are blamed for their poverty. Rather than see poverty as the result of chance, circumstance, or misfortune, Americans tend to judge or condemn people for it. If you are poor, the assumption is, it is your own fault. 

The other side of this trend is that Americans tend to believe that the wealthy are better than others, somehow more virtuous for being wealthy, and therefore should be especially favored by government policies as a kind of reward—while the poor are disfavored. The imposition of poll taxes has been used historically to restrict voting rights. Indeed, those not meeting a certain wealth criterion have been prevented from exercising the democratic right to choose one’s leaders. This is yet another example of how American citizenship is in practice conditional, despite the ideals of the nation’s founders.


Though the United States is a democracy and upholds the principle of free speech, Americans often exhibit intolerance towards the speech and opinions of others. For example, those who, after the September 11 attacks, opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were usually silenced and accused of being unpatriotic or sympathetic to terrorists. If one suggests that these wars are detrimental to the civilians in those countries, the response is often an attempt to place blame on those populations.

This attitude implies that foreign groups are to be viewed monolithically. By this logic, a single instance of, for example, a Muslim terrorist somehow reflects on Muslims in general. Such intolerance represents a refusal, based narrowly on religious or racial attributes, to view people as individuals.


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