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Laila Lalami On Citizenship And Belonging 

posted on: Mar 27, 2024

Book Cover: Conditional Citizen: On Belonging in America

By: María Teresa Fidalgo-Azize | Arab America Contributing Writer

Over the last twenty years, I have understood that nothing is more American than forgetting the past. It is through the obliteration of memory, an obliteration perpetrated with great deliberation by the state upon its citizenry, that American identity is fashioned. But conditional citizens will insist on remembering. Laila Lalami, Conditional Citizen: On Belonging in America

Either by birthright or naturalization, the status of holding American citizenship in the United States is essential for guaranteeing equal treatment and humanity from law enforcement. According to Pulitzer finalist, scholar, and essayist Laila Lalami, the premise of equality and freedom of expression is conditioned by one’s identity markers, primarily distinguished through the categories of national origin, ethnicity, race, class, and gender. Lalami arrived in the United States from her native Morocco to pursue a Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Southern California.

After residing in the United States for eight years, she became a naturalized US citizen. Chapters in the non-fiction book Conditional Citizen: On Belonging in America are organized based on the principles by which primarily immigrants are instructed to adapt to be fully recognized as American: Allegiance, Faith, Borders, Assimilation, Tribe, Caste, Inheritance. Lalami expresses, through her own experience and historiographic research, how the promise of the American Dream is not exclusively defined by citizenship status but also by homogenization into a neutral American culture code: white Judeo-Christian land-owning values.

The cultural resurgence in discussing America’s unhealed past with racism has become ubiquitous in today’s political climate, specifically after the murder of George Floyd. The distinctive factor amongst a sea of social justice literature in Conditional Citizen is Lalami’s assertiveness in refusing to render her Arab heritage invisible, as her immigrant status, and Muslim faith. The book sometimes searches for a resounding conclusion on the steps to follow for an equal America, which dulls down to unspecified and generic. Nevertheless, the moments of testimonial vulnerability make Lalami’s case for achieving the promise of America, which she pledged to uphold at Pomona Fairplex in 2000.

Conditional Citizens: Tell Me What It Takes for You to See Me as Equal?

Over the years, I’ve noticed that for some Americans, the assimilation of immigrants is based on pragmatic considerations, like civic engagement or familiarity with the country’s history or culture. For others, however, assimilation runs deeper and involves relinquishing all ties to the old country. Laila Lalami, Conditional Citizen: On Belonging in America

In the chapter Assimilation, Lalami explores how assimilation is a systematic tool for maintaining cultural dominance. Thus, not only should an immigrant abide by the responsibilities of any law-abiding citizen, such as paying taxes and participating in civic life, but they should also relinquish a part of their identity, such as language and religious practice, to prove the legitimacy of their legality in the country of migration. Beginning the chapter with an anecdote on how a white man on an airplane expressed to her his discomfort of how Korean-Americans “don’t assimilate,” Lalami deconstructs the nature of his argument, stating that legal and English proficiency assimilation into society is not sufficient for an immigrant, but also requires absolute or gradual separation from their national origin. Specifically in the context of non-white immigrants, to become and be recognized as American, there can be no ties to one’s ancestral homeland: subordination to the status quo must be complied with.

Six days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington and pronounced that “Islam is peace. These terrorists do not represent peace. They represent evil and war.” This speech alleviated concerns over racial profiling and violent retaliation against Muslims and people ethnically associated with Islam. The President’s soothing words were quickly overturned on September 20th when he declared in Congress: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorist.” As Lalami states, being with us, Americans implied absolute agreement with the US government. To disagree is equated with a unilateral act of non-patriotic behavior. As an immigrant, Arab, and Muslim, Lalami argues that the binary proposed by Bush bound her as a conditional citizen, as she – like many others – had to curtail her freedom of speech to avoid suspicion and accusations about her allegiance to the United States. Assimilation mandates negotiation with one’s identity as a medium for survival.


As April begins Arab American Month, readings like Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami allow many others, who are immigrants, Arab, and Muslim, to recognize the validity of their hardships in fully belonging to the United States of America. Written provocatively yet cognizant of how assertiveness is misconstrued as aggressiveness, Laila Lalami liberates herself from the self-imposed spell of silence and denial when speaking about her experience as a citizen of the United States. For Lalami, being part of America also suggests speaking and contributing as part of her growth and progress.

Works Cited: 

“Laila Lalami (Author of Conditional Citizens) at the FYE® Conference 2023.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 Mar. 2023,

Lalami, Laila. Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America . First Vintage Books Edition , 2020. 

Lalami, Laila. “I’m a Muslim and Arab American. Will I Ever Be an Equal Citizen?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Sept. 2020,

King, Noel. “‘Conditional Citizens’ Examines What It Means to Be an American.” NPR, NPR, 22 Sept. 2020,

Nazario, Sonia. “Life in an America Where Some Are Only ‘Conditional Citizens.’” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Sept. 2020,

[1] Throughout the book, research regarding immigration acts, interpretations of the US Constitution and the historical tracing of the origin of Muslim identity from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade point at how multiculturalism (racial and religious) in the United States has been sidestepped for the myth of a collective unity which required assimilation to White Evangelical society. 

[2] Lalami uses the example of how in 1930, the Texan congressman John C. Box spoke to the House Immigration and Naturalization Committee about how the Johnson Reed Act of 1924 ( immigration act that banned immigrants from Asian countries and established national-quotas to limit the arrival of non-white immigrants, this included eastern and southern Europeans) should include the category of “Mexican” as “ for the most part Mexicans are Indians, and very seldom become naturalized. They know little of sanitation, are very low mentally and are generally unhealthy”.

During the Great Depression, the United States government began a campaign to “repatriate” Mexicans, even one’s born in the United States, with the purpose of protecting white-American jobs affected by the Great Depression.  

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