In the opening pages of Laila Lalami’s memoir-cum-manifesto, Conditional Citizens, the Moroccan-born novelist tells a story presumably experienced by a select number of naturalized Americans. Returning home from a sojourn abroad in 2000, Lalami, a newly christened citizen of the great republic and bearing a freshly minted passport, is met with a distinctly inhospitable greeting. While passing through Customs at Los Angeles International Airport, she and her husband hand over their passports to the waiting border agent. After examining their documents, the official, wearing “a conspiratorial smile,” turned to the husband and said, “How many camels did you have to trade in for her?”
This fleeting encounter left Lalami speechless in the moment but filled with lingering fury. She cites it as definitive proof of the “enduring perception in the United States of Arabs and Muslims as lesser people: their religions, languages, cultures, customs, and modes of dress are marked not only as different but also inferior.” Lalami puts the blame for this public impression on popular media, “whose purpose is less to illuminate or engage Arab Muslim life than it is to assert its deficiency and justify its subjugation.” To this end, she derides the almost universally negative portrayal of Arab Muslim characters in Hollywood—which admittedly has not been able to make a decent film set in the lands of Islam since 1975, with The Wind and the Lion. Lalami seizes the inquiry into her value on the camel market to recycle Edward Said’s old argument in Orientalism about traditional Western interest in the Arab world being a cover for the pursuit of hegemony.
This charged interpretation of a discomfiting incident with a border agent seems dubious, to say the very least, and it rings somewhat absurd—an episode of crying before being hurt. It is no defense of a boorish border agent to question whether his maladroit words were a deliberate assertion of dominance over the Other rather than (say) a poor jest meant to elicit mirth. Perhaps it was simply a vulgar attempt to appear clever. In any case, has Lalami considered the possibility that a passing remark by a lone, lowly, and probably bored official is far from concrete evidence that “the state” wields a specific bias, verging on a vendetta, against Muslim or Arab Americans? On the evidence spun out in the elegant but dismal Conditional Citizens, she has not.
Fortunately, Lalami does not rely solely on the power of anecdote in her wounded meditation on being a Muslim citizen in post-9/11 America. She recites the statistics showing that in the months following the jihadist assault on American soil, hate crimes against Muslims—or Sikhs, who were sometimes thought to be Muslim—spiked. These outrages against people and property accounted for 26.2 percent of all religious-bias crimes in 2001—a figure that Lalami rounds up to 27 percent. (By comparison, anti-Semitic attacks accounted for 56.5 percent of all religious-bias crimes in the same year.) Despite President Bush’s explicit and emphatic repudiation of this bigotry-fueled violence, including his visit to a mosque in Washington, D.C., within a week of the attacks proclaiming that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” Lalami intimates that Bush stirred animus against his fellow citizens who hailed from the Middle East or prayed toward Mecca.
How does Lalami possibly begin to justify such a large and libelous claim? She posits that Bush’s declaration of a “global war on terror,” complete with a choice before every foreign government to stand with or against the terrorists, was a “veiled demand for silent allegiance” on the domestic front, directed at her co-religionists. The proof, according to Lalami, that this threat was not intended for foreign consumption was that “many countries around the world—including the four whose nationals perpetrated the attacks—had already condemned the terrorists and expressed solidarity with the United States.”
This tendentious reading leaves no room for skepticism toward those notorious runaway allies in the broader Middle East—e.g., the Saudi royals, the Egyptian junta, or the Pakistani intelligence services—who issued farcical professions of sympathy to the victims of terrorism while giving tacit encouragement to the holy warriors. Instead, Bush’s simple insinuation, we are told, was that “one could not be Arab and American, or Muslim and American, unless one was on the side of the United States in its military fights.”
This was decidedly not the side taken by Lalami once the post-9/11 war between civilization and barbarism broke out in earnest. Pronouncing herself “against the impending invasion of Afghanistan,” she feared “the toll it would take on innocent civilians already traumatized by decades of conflict.” The author does not mention the toll exacted on those same innocent civilians by the nightmarish rule of the Taliban. Nor does she venture an opinion about how the civilized world, including a great many Muslims, might be defended against the ferocious menace of al-Qaeda and other jihadist movements.
In order to protect Islam from any possible association with violence and brigandage, Lalami characterizes the conventional wisdom in America after September 11 as a “straightforward story of a senseless crime that had to be avenged swiftly.” But who ever said the attack launched against American civil society was “senseless”? It was surely a deliberate attack intended to inflict a grievous wound on American society and enforce America’s retreat from its dominant position in the Middle East. Along with many on the contemporary left, Lalami cannot bring herself to acknowledge why holy warriors sign up in their multitudes to kill and willingly die: in service of a radical Islamist millenarianism that is purposeful, indeed eschatological.
LALAMI’S disillusionment with America and her fierce anti-war pronouncements may seem radical today—or perhaps not, since some on the Trump-influenced right have given voice to similar sentiments—but they mirror the views held by many American Muslims at the time. The most prominent American Muslim organization, the Council on American Islamic Relations, registered its opposition to the war in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. A Zogby International poll of American Muslims in November found that 43 percent opposed the war to destroy al-Qaeda and their Taliban hosts. This opposition to America’s central post-9/11 foreign policy became only more pronounced as the conflict dragged on. By May 2002, Zogby found that almost half of American Muslims opposed the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. One-third regarded the war on terror as a pretext for a war on Islam. Only about one-third of American Muslims still believed that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attack on America.
In lieu of addressing this sustained alienation among a swath of American Muslims, Lalami returns again and again to Bush’s ominous ith-us-or-against-us formulation. In Bush’s pugnacious proclamation, she detects “echoes” of ISIS’s worldview. (Really.) Lalami posits that the Bush administration embodied the staggering religious intolerance of the Islamic State’s English-language magazine, Dabiq. This moral equivalence between a savage medieval army and the constitutional leader of a democratic republic seeking to stave off the world’s evil is perverse, but it is essential to burnish Lalami’s self-conception as a non-aligned global citizen. In her estimation, these rival views of the world—George W. Bush’s and Omar al-Baghdadi’s—“leave no room for people like me.” Such a pity that the American government, in its tireless battle to preserve Lalami’s life and liberty from armed theocratic brigands, did not do more to cushion her identity crisis.
Allowing that Bush had no malice for domestic critics or vulnerable Muslim minorities (who he said, “love this country as much as I do”) would obviate Lalami’s delicate position “at the intersection of identities.” She would be forced to admit that in America, unlike so many other places, individualism and pluralism could be lived out and asserted without apology.
And so she conspires to tell a lie, to herself and others. She claims that when Bush launched a war against terror, it negated her very existence. “My whole life has been lived in-between—in between languages, in between cultures, in between countries…. My life resisted the kind of easy categories that the head of state had outlined for everyone.” Such a fantastic display of narcissism leaves one breathless. In the aftermath of a ghastly attack, with the commander in chief calling for a measure of national unity, is it really so taxing for Lalami to be asked to choose sides between her wounded adopted country and a clutch of blood-soaked Islamist fanatics?
After concentrating her ire on President Bush, Lalami writes with conspicuously more warmth and empathy toward the man “with the middle name Hussein” who would succeed him. “In a sense, Obama, too, was caught in between,” she writes. Lalami points to the conspiracy theory about Obama’s citizenship to demonstrate that he would never be welcomed in certain quarters of the country as a full and equal citizen. This much was, and is, sadly true. But the author veers into trouble when she asserts that Obama “had to prove his Americanness … by denouncing Jeremiah Wright, the pastor who in the wake of 9/11 had sharply criticized U.S. foreign policy and its blowback effects.” Of course, Wright was not merely an acerbic critic of U.S. foreign policy but a depraved cleric and racial demagogue who shrieked that the drugs and disease rife in the black community were evidence of a heinous government conspiracy. In severing ties with this vicious crackpot, Obama proved only his discernment regarding eligibility for the nation’s highest office.
Lalami is liable to make startling errors on other political matters as well. “Obama had been elected on a promise that he would end the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she avers, against the historical record that Obama had pledged to fight and prevail in Afghanistan—the “good war” that Democratic operatives contrasted to the “bad war” in Iraq. Perhaps this mistake owes to her root-and-branch opposition to U.S. foreign policy, in which she may not want to implicate Obama. In the course of a disquisition about ISIS, Lalami holds American statecraft responsible for “half a century of intervention in Muslim-majority countries—and interruption of their political destinies.”
In her long tally of states where the U.S. has deployed its forces, she makes no mention of Bosnia, where U.S. airpower arrested genocide. She does find space to include Kuwait, which, in 1990, had been on track to be absorbed as Iraq’s 19th province. I suppose one might say that Saddam Hussein’s annexation was “interrupted” by American arms, but Lalami does not say whether this act of Baathist aggression also transgressed against Kuwait’s political destiny. How any of this history fits into Lalami’s narrative of coming to grips with ISIS is left to the reader to work out.
THE IDEA of conditional citizenship stated in Lalami’s title refers to “millions of people” in America who “know what it is like for a country to embrace you with one arm, and push you away with the other.” They “live with the terrible reality that their relationship to the state is at least partly determined by the color of their skin, the nature of their creed, their gender identity, or their national origin.”
This is a bizarre reading of a country that has lavished the author with numerous literary prizes and endless praise that almost certainly would’ve eluded her in the land of her birth. This exposes the essential contradiction of Conditional Citizens. Lalami reprises Frederick Douglass’s counsel not to despair of this country while she simultaneously breeds that very quality in credulous readers.
If American society were truly gripped by racial supremacy and if its government were responsible for igniting conflict around the globe, it would scarcely merit the solemn oath Lalami took when becoming a citizen. And it would scarcely merit the profound and often harrowing risks undertaken by immigrants from every land who knowingly and thoughtfully attached their own hopes to the Stars and Stripes.
The conditional citizenship that some seek to impose and others seem determined to imagine should not diminish the allegiance of all Americans—new and old, whatever their pigmentation and whatever name they call God—to this grand experiment in self-government. That allegiance deserves to be unconditional, whatever might be said to us at the airport.
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