By Laila Lalami
“Go back home!” the note said.
As it happened, I was already home, curled up on the sofa and scrolling through notifications on my mobile phone. Earlier that day, I tweeted a snapshot of a handwritten index card someone handed me at a lecture I gave in upstate New York in 2016, asking me what advice I would give to young Muslim Americans who did not feel safe in their communities after that year’s election. I wasn’t sure I had much advice for how to handle that feeling, because at times I struggled with it myself. Perhaps, I thought, others on social media might have something useful to contribute. Instead, a stranger gave that short, blunt reply: “Go where you feel safe. Go back home!”
The sentiment wasn’t new to me. I’d heard it before, and not just from online trolls who believed they had the supreme right to decide who belongs in the United States. Last year, I recoiled in alarm when I watched footage of a protester in the crowd outside a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, yelling at Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan to go back to her country. Tlaib was part of a congressional delegation visiting the detention facility to learn more about the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers under the Trump administration’s family-separation policy. When the representative came out to speak with reporters, someone shouted at her, “We don’t want Muslims here!” That same xenophobic impulse finds its voice each time the president fires another salvo in his ongoing conflict with Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. In the last few months, he has called her “a horrible woman who hates our country” and a “hate-filled, America-bashing socialist.”
Moments like these serve as a reminder to Muslims that our belonging in the United States is not secure but conditional: At the slightest sign of political disagreement, some Americans are eager to deny or revoke our citizenship. Whether we are immigrants, refugees or natural-born citizens, ordinary constituents or members of Congress, we continue to be seen as unwanted latecomers in a “Judeo-Christian nation.”
This vexed position has its roots in how Americanness is defined. Citizenship is supposed to be a great equalizer — whatever our race, gender, origin or social class, the Constitution protects us all. Historically, however, citizenship has never fulfilled that purpose. At the founding of the nation, propertied white men had far greater rights, which translated into social, economic and political gains over many generations. It took centuries of struggle, some of it violent and bloody, for American citizenship to be incrementally extended to different groups: White men without property, white women, Black people, Native Americans, Asian-Americans. Only recently has race stopped being a condition of full citizenship. (For example, racial restrictions on immigration were not abolished until 1965.)
But race is a slippery denominator, and for those of us who approach it from a different cultural background, it is by no means understood the same way. When I moved to this country from Morocco in 1992, I supported myself by teaching Arabic and French to undergraduate students at the University of Southern California. I was asked to fill out a great many forms — what my graduate school classmates delightfully, if mysteriously, called “paperwork.” Several of these forms included a section about race. I think there were five categories in those days: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and White. Some of these labels clearly referred to geography, but others described skin color, which made them harder to interpret. On the back of the form, definitions of each category were provided: “White” applied to “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa,” while “Black” applied to “a person having origins in the Black racial groups of Africa.”
I was bewildered, both by the imperative to self-identify and by the narrowness of the categories on the list. Where would Moroccans fit into such categories? Someone who was born in the north of Morocco, say, and had ancestry in one of the tribes from the Rif Mountains, would have to check the “White” box, while someone from the south, with ancestry in any of the tribes from the Sahara, would have to check the “Black” box. What about those who, like me, were from the middle part of the country? And what of the complication that many Moroccans’ self-perception is intimately tied to their ethnicity (Arab or Amazigh) or their religion (Muslim or Jewish)?
After a few minutes of confusion, I checked both the “White” and “Black” boxes, in the hope that this somehow conveyed the fact that I was brown. Later that afternoon, I ran into a fellow Moroccan student in the same program. He was Afro-Arab, and I was curious what box he had checked on the form when he filled it out the year before. “White,” he told me with a laugh. “That’s how they count us.” We shook our heads at the absurdity of the situation. This is not to say that there was no racial paradigm in our native country, but it is to say that neither of us had thought of racial identity as a single box to be checked.
As months and then years went by, however, I saw how all these forms, imperfect as they may have been, were used to track all kinds of interactions between the state and its citizens — enrollment in public schools and universities; treatment in health clinics and hospitals; enlistment in the armed services; granting of real estate loans; and outcomes of encounters with the police. These data are valuable because they give us relatively objective measures of current inequalities in American society: For example, that Black and Hispanic students graduate from college at lower rates than white and Asian students; that the Indigenous infant mortality rate is far higher than the white infant mortality rate; or that Black and Hispanic enlistment in the armed forces is higher than their participation in the labor force. The statistical data on race provide a certain amount of transparency, which, sometimes, led to accountability for discrimination.
Arab-Americans occupy a liminal space in this racialized system. The Census Bureau counts us as white, yet we are often treated as nonwhite in encounters with the state or its agents. Arab-Americans, particularly those of us who are Muslim, have reported extra screenings at ports of entry, removals from flights based on complaints by white passengers, additions to the no-fly list and surveillance by law enforcement or intelligence agencies. Although these experiences are well documented, they are difficult to study and appraise, in part because the government does not collect precise statistical data on Arabs. No special box means no specific data. Statisticians are forced to extrapolate numbers based on the information that people volunteer on the census form.
Over the last three decades, the United States has repeatedly tested the boundaries of citizenship: when it built a warrantless surveillance system that targeted certain communities; when it debated changes to its immigration system; and when it elected to the presidency a man who promised a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the country. Each time, Muslim and Arab Americans have teetered on the edge of belonging and unbelonging: They may be citizens, but they are also perpetual suspects, always having to show their allegiance through silence or acquiescence.
Although Muslim Americans are often perceived as foreigners or latecomers, history tells us otherwise. Muslims have lived in America since before there was an English colony at Jamestown. In fact, the earliest Muslims to land in this country arrived here with Spanish expeditions. For instance, an enslaved man from Morocco, called Estebanico by the conquistadors, was part of the ill-fated Narváez expedition, which landed in Florida in 1528. (My novel, “The Moor’s Account,” was inspired by his life.) The expedition was an unmitigated disaster: Resistance from Native tribes, failures of navigation and an epidemic outbreak all combined to decimate the ranks of the conquerors. The survivors traveled across the continent for the better part of a decade, finally arriving in Mexico City in 1536. There, they were asked to provide an official testimony of their travels. But because he was enslaved, Estebanico’s experiences were never recorded; perhaps they were considered irrelevant, or uninteresting, or even unreliable.
Such erasure from the official record characterizes much of the experience of Muslims in the United States. A significant share of the enslaved people who were brought to this country during the trans-Atlantic slave trade were Muslims from West Africa. They were forcibly converted to Christianity and given new names. Still, a number of them managed to leave their marks on American history. One of the earliest slave narratives in this country comes from Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, also known as Job Ben Solomon, a slave merchant from Bundu, in present-day Senegal, who was himself captured in 1731 and brought to Maryland.
Another important narrative was the work of Omar ibn Said, a Senegalese religious scholar who was kidnapped, sold into slavery in 1807 and brought to South Carolina. Unlike Diallo, whose story was told through an interpreter and edited by a British judge, ibn Said composed his memoir in Arabic, in the Maghribi script. “I reside in this our country by reason of great necessity,” he wrote. “Wicked men took me by violence [and] sold me to the Christians.” Two more narratives of American slavery were left behind by Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori, a Fulani nobleman who was enslaved in his native Guinea and spent 40 years in bondage until a letter he wrote found its way to the sultan of Morocco, who successfully petitioned President John Quincy Adams and his secretary of state for his release.
I know of no written narratives by the hundreds of thousands of enslaved Muslim women who survived the march to the African coast, the Middle Passage and the torture and brutality of colonial plantations. The historical record preserved their lives and deaths only as commodities, as lines in sale and transfer ledgers, never as human stories, with names and pasts and hopes and fears. By 1936, when the Federal Writers’ Project began collecting oral narratives from the last surviving formerly enslaved people, there was little trace of Muslim identity left.
Sometimes, however, erasure can be met with research. In the 1930s, a woman baptized Silvia King, who had the “appearance of extreme age,” told the Federal Writers’ Project that she had been born “in Morocco, in Africa, and was married and had children befor’ I was stoled from my husband.” She said she was drugged, taken to France and thereafter transported to New Orleans. Although birth in Morocco does not by itself establish a religious identity, it remains statistically likely that Silvia King was born Muslim. Some scholars have also suggested that Phillis Wheatley, who in 1773 became the first African-American woman to publish a collection of poetry, already knew the Arabic alphabet when she arrived in Boston and might have been a Muslim from Gambia or Senegal.
The valuable work of uncovering America’s connections to its Muslim past remains largely confined to academic circles. Popular narratives of the antebellum South continue to portray enslaved people as Christians — whether devoted, reluctant or syncretic — with their own rich tradition of folklore, storytelling and church spirituals. Under conditions of hereditary enslavement, maintaining their distinct religious, cultural and linguistic traditions proved difficult for Muslims. This is why the first mosques established in this country were not built by enslaved or formerly enslaved men and women, but by immigrants who arrived centuries later. One of the first was built in 1929, by Syrian and Lebanese homesteaders who constructed a masjid in Ross, N.D., a mosque that still exists today.
For the American legal system, there was one immense difference between these Muslim homesteaders and the descendants of enslaved Muslims: the question of race. The Naturalization Act of 1790, the first piece of legislation to delineate the boundaries of Americanness, limited citizenship to “free white persons.” The Arab immigrants who came to this country from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine in the late 19th century were eager to be counted as white, because that was the only way to establish their eligibility for citizenship. The fact that many of them were Christians served to bolster their claims, as it quelled complaints about assimilation into white Protestant society. Furthermore, their principal occupations — peddlers, factory workers — facilitated English-language learning and citizenship applications.
Their legal status was initially decided in Dow v. United States in 1915. George Dow, a Syrian-Christian immigrant living in South Carolina, was twice denied citizenship because of the color of his skin, which “was darker than the usual person of white-European descent.” On appeal, however, he was granted citizenship based on the fact that several Syrian applicants had been previously approved and the opinion that “the inhabitants of a portion of Asia, including Syria, were to be classed as white persons.” While granting George Dow’s claims to whiteness — and therefore to citizenship — the court drew a line between Middle-Easterners and the “Asiatics” that Congress was trying to exclude through various acts of legislation. Geography, it seemed, could override skin color in defining whiteness.
Matters became more complicated when Arab-Muslims sought citizenship. In 1942, the District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan denied citizenship to a Yemeni immigrant and Detroit resident by the name of Ahmed Hassan. After taking note of Hassan’s skin, which was “undisputably dark brown in color,” and his geographic origin, which was technically “outside the zone from which Asiatic immigration is excluded,” the court decided that “Arabs as a class are not white and therefore not eligible for citizenship.” The ruling cited religious dimensions to citizenship as well, finding that “it is well known that [Arabs] are a part of the Mohammedan world and that a wide gulf separates their culture from that of the predominantly Christian peoples of Europe.” In sum, access to whiteness depended on a specific combination of skin color, geography and religion. So Arabs weren’t white, after all.
After taking note of his skin, which was ‘undisputably dark brown in color,’ the court decided that ‘Arabs as a class are not white and therefore not eligible for citizenship.’
Less than two years later, and with an eye to new political alliances in the Middle East, judicial opinion would change once again and Arabs would be deemed white. Mohamed Mohriez — a Muslim immigrant from what is now Saudi Arabia, who had lived in the United States for more than 20 years — petitioned for citizenship in 1944. Judge Charles Wyzanski, writing for the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, granted the petition, citing the recommendation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the achievements of Arabs in science and architecture, the ideals of “democratic liberalism,” and the “vital interests [of the United States] as a world power.” Race, it turns out, is a politically useful construct.
According to the Census Bureau, Arabs count as white, even if, depending on their ancestry, they identify as Black or Asian. They are not entitled to special considerations such as affirmative-action programs. But in practice, Arabs are often treated as nonwhite — for instance, by the I.N.S. special registration program that targeted immigrants from majority-Muslim nations following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Culturally too, we are usually treated as a separate race, hence our almost universal portrayal as villains or victims in popular media. In books and newspapers, Arabs and Muslims are typically seen through the lens of current events — foreign wars, global migration and especially terrorism. The association is so pervasive that references to it crop up even in situations that have nothing to do with terrorism. At my literary events, for example, I’ve been asked many times about Al Qaeda and ISIS, as though my being Muslim grants me special insight into transnational terrorist groups that combine Islamist ideology with guerrilla tactics.
Muslim Americans who appear in a public forum will, sooner or later, face that question, whether the forum is a literary event or a fashion show or the halls of power in Washington. It may take the form of an accusation, from someone who has been fed a diet of propaganda, or it may take the form of a sincere remark; it may even take the form of a joke, intended to lighten the mood of the audience. But it will come. And when it does, the Muslim faces an impossible choice: Ignore the comment and perpetuate the association with terrorism, or address the comment and perpetuate the association anyway. There is no right answer. There is only the hope, by speaking about oneself, to create room for individuality.
My own life has taken turns I could not have imagined when I stepped off a plane at Los Angeles International Airport on a late-summer afternoon in 1992. Back then, my intention had been to complete a Ph.D. in linguistics, then return home to Morocco, where I planned to work as a college professor. A couple of years into my degree, however, I met an American, we fell in love and eventually married. In choosing to be with him, I chose to embrace his country as well. That made of me an immigrant, the kind of person that America has long mythologized, in art if not in life — from the ruthless gangsters in “The Godfather” to the hardworking women in “The Joy Luck Club” to the eponymous founding father in “Hamilton.”
But even under the best of circumstances, immigration is a traumatic experience that cuts a person’s life in two: There is the life before and the life after. For a long time after I moved to the United States, I wore two watches: one that told the time in Los Angeles, and the other the time in Rabat. In the morning, while I was getting ready for class, I would often think about my family, 6,000 miles away, sitting down to afternoon tea. In my memory, everyone back home remained exactly as I had last seen them, as if caught in a photograph. It never occurred to me that, day after day, they were getting older, making new friends, switching jobs or moving houses. They were changing, just as I was changing.
Whenever I stepped out of my apartment, I felt keenly aware that I was speaking a foreign language, whose sentences I had to compose with deliberation before I could speak them. In graduate seminars, my classmates would chuckle or even laugh when they heard me mispronounce some words, especially those I had only known in print — “epitome” and “fortuitous” and “onomatopoeia.” At times, the phonetic rules of English didn’t make much sense to me: Why did “rough” rhyme with “tough” but not with “dough”? Eventually I adapted to the local dialect and my foreign accent became less noticeable. One morning, a few years after arriving in this country, I woke up with the startling realization that I had dreamed in English.
The language was the easy part, however. There were so many cultural differences that hardly a day went by when I didn’t notice a new one. It was not considered impolite, for example, to eat one’s breakfast in front of others in the dorm’s common room without offering to share it with them. It was not considered rude to invite someone to lunch at a restaurant and then expect them to pay for their meal. If I sound singularly focused on food, perhaps it’s because food is so intimately tied to culture. It seemed to me that Americans were always rushing around, never taking the time to sit down for a cup of coffee or a proper dinner. I was shocked the first time I saw a woman eating a hamburger as she drove down the 10 freeway.
My story of immigration has been enriched by the love of my husband and family, the joy of enduring friendships, the fulfillment I find in my work. But nothing could have prepared me for what I lost. I missed my grandmother’s funeral, four of my cousins’ weddings and countless birthdays and celebrations with my family. If there was a crisis, I could never be sure that I would be there to help. Once, I remember, I was on vacation in Wyoming when I received a text in the middle of the night telling me that my father was in the hospital and that he might not make it. For several minutes my mind couldn’t comprehend the text I was reading. All I wanted then was a chance to say goodbye. I scrambled to book a flight and traveled back to my hometown. To my relief, the treatment my father received worked and, while he recovered, we had a chance to spend some time together.
But the fear I experienced that summer stayed with me. It visited me again this summer when my father fell ill once more and his condition did not improve. Because of the pandemic, I could not travel to be with him and was forced to coordinate his care from thousands of miles away, waiting daily for updates from my mother. He died earlier this month, the pain of his loss made unendurable by our separation.
These experiences are not unusual; I share them with more than 40 million people in the United States. All immigrants walk around with a scar left behind by their crossing into a new country, an invisible mark of the exile that became their condition when they were uprooted. Their children grow up without grandparents, without aunts and uncles and cousins, without a reservoir of collective family memory passed down through generations.
But while immigrants nurse this immense loss, they also face intense pressure to shed their past and assimilate into the mainstream. A few years ago, the president suggested that Muslims were failing at this task, and that their “assimilation has been very hard. It’s almost — I won’t say nonexistent, but it gets to be pretty close. And I’m talking about second and third generation. For some reason, there’s no real assimilation.”
In fact, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted shortly after Trump’s election, the overwhelming majority of Muslim Americans feel pride in their national and religious identities, are satisfied with their lives and believe in the national myth of the American dream. They display the same commitment to religion as Christians and attend religious services at the same rates as Christians. They rank being a good parent as a more important goal than leading a religious life or having a high-paying career, a choice that mirrors patterns among the general population. Although many report experiences of discrimination, the majority feel that non-Muslims are either friendly or neutral toward them. Looking at the demographic data, and particularly the direction of trends over time, the path of Muslim assimilation seems pretty typical, echoing that of other ethnic and religious groups.
And yet the pressure to assimilate continues. In May 2015, more than 200 activists, most of them armed, showed up outside mosques in Phoenix to protest — well, it’s unclear what they were protesting, other than the very presence of Muslims and their places of worship in their community. Under the nativist view, which has only gained ground in recent years, assimilation means complete subordination to the dominant culture and the expulsion of anyone perceived as different.
Immigrants live their lives in the particular, but find it reflected back to them in the generic, whether in the speeches of ambitious politicians or the plotlines of Hollywood movies, in multiculturalists’ praise for their contributions or nativist warnings about their undesirable influence. Their success is attributed to America, its countless opportunities, the uniqueness of its melting pot; their failure belongs only to their country of origin, their race or their culture. The dynamic between nation and newcomer is marked by contradiction, by praise for our “nation of immigrants” as well as complaints about alien “invasions.”
This contradiction came starkly to life last month. The president, who built his political career on xenophobia, hosted a naturalization ceremony for five immigrants during the Republican National Convention. Standing at a lectern in the White House, he praised them as “absolutely incredible” individuals, congratulating them on becoming citizens and welcoming them into “our great American family.” It did not seem to trouble him, or his supporters, that the immigration restrictions he has ordered might well have prevented one of the immigrants he was applauding — a woman from Sudan — from being allowed into this country. Since coming to office, he has effectively closed the doors of the United States to immigrants from 13 countries, all of whose people are considered nonwhite, or else insufficiently white. Yet there he was, smiling for the cameras and repeating America’s well-worn praises toward a woman who, if you take him at his word and his policies, he did not believe should be allowed here.
This woman is now a U.S. citizen. But for her, and for so many others, that status may become contested without warning. If they cling to a mode of dress, a language or a habit that seems a little too conspicuous to the majority, they might be told that they are not assimilating, or not assimilating enough. If they voice negative opinions about government policies, they might be told they have no standing to speak and that they should “go back home.”
Earlier this month, I received yet another note from a stranger: “You apparently dislike America,” she wrote in an email. “Why don’t you go back to Morocco?” I was struck by the possessive rage that underlaid this message. What she failed to understand is that my criticism is not an act of hate, but an act of care. What rights and freedoms I have are tethered to those around me. Instead of swaddling myself with the flag and parroting praise for the U.S., I would rather do the patient, necessary work of fighting for justice and equality. That, to me, is the “true faith and allegiance” of the oath of citizenship.
This article is adapted from Laila Lalami’s forthcoming book, “Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America.”