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‘Conditional Citizens,’ by Laila Lalami: An Excerpt


Twice, I had come face-to-face with the state, in the person of the border agent, and discovered that it held a specific bias about me as a citizen. The two encounters reflect an enduring perception in the United States—by no means restricted to border agents—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. The perception flows from representations in popular media, whose purpose is less to illuminate or engage Arab Muslim life than it is to assert its deficiency and justify its subjugation, a dynamic that Edward Said described forty years ago in Orientalism. In a comprehensive survey of representation in Hollywood films, for example, the critic Jack Shaheen found that more than 90 percent of movies that featured Arab Muslim characters portrayed them negatively. These images are ubiquitous and influential—so influential that they can make otherwise sensible people believe that they are true. The complexity of a multitude of private experiences is erased and replaced by a single public story, which grows more convincing with each repetition.

When a community struggles against such erasure, I would soon learn, even a small glance of acknowledgment from a politician can feel like an immense validation. A couple of months after I took the oath, Alex and I went to a mosque on Vermont Avenue to donate blood for a drive organized by the American Red Cross. While I stood on the sidewalk, waiting my turn to have my blood drawn, I was handed a flyer from the Muslim Public Affairs Council asking me to vote for George W. Bush in the upcoming election. I can’t recall the specific wording of it, but the basic argument was that Ralph Nader was unelectable, Al Gore didn’t espouse family values, but George Bush cared about issues that mattered to the community. When Alex came out of the Red Cross truck, I showed him the flyer. “Why him?” I wondered out loud. “I don’t understand.” Only later did it occur to me that Bush had made these people—my people—feel like they were seen and heard for the first time.

As presidential candidate, Bush had courted the Arab and Muslim vote. He traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, which has a large Arab-American population, to meet with community leaders, and appointed an Arab-American lobbyist, Khaled Saffuri, as an adviser to his campaign. During one of his televised debates with Al Gore, Bush pledged to end racial profiling in encounters with law enforcement and to stop the use of secret evidence in immigration proceedings, both sensitive issues within the Arab and Muslim communities. At the First Union Center in Philadelphia, where the Republican National Convention was held that year, Bush invited Talat Othman, a Palestinian-American businessman, to deliver a Muslim benediction. This marked the first time that an Islamic prayer had been included in a major party’s convention, a novelty that pundits highlighted during television coverage of the events.

Bush’s strategy ultimately paid off. He received more than 45,000 votes from various Muslim communities in Florida, a state he carried, thanks to the Supreme Court’s interference in the recount, by just 537 votes. Notably, however, black Muslims remained unconvinced by Bush’s claims that he was “a different kind of Republican”—a conservative who would rally “little armies of compassion” to address persistent social problems like drug abuse or teen pregnancy—and by wide margins chose Al Gore instead. The “Muslim vote” was not monolithic, it turned out. Black Muslims had a different perception of Bush than non-black Muslims, many of whom seemed either unaware or unconcerned about the racist flyers that were sent in support of his candidacy during the race for the Republican nomination in South Carolina. Openly pursued for the first time by a presidential candidate, and apparently persuaded by his campaign promises, Arab Muslims cast their ballots for him.

The day after Bush was sworn into office, a group of prominent Republicans, including Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, met with representatives from the Arab and Muslim communities to discuss issues of concern, including racial profiling. Legislation to stop the practice was introduced in Congress—by Russ Feingold, a Democrat. To remind Bush of his campaign commitments to them, Arab and Muslim leaders asked to meet with him directly. The appointment, much discussed and much delayed, was finally scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

The meeting never took place.

That morning, my phone rang a little before 6:00 a.m. It was my brother-in-law, his voice filled with urgency, telling me to turn on the television, something terrible was happening. I stumbled over to the living room and turned on the set, in time to see thick plumes of black smoke billowing from the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and people jumping from the windows of the building. At least, that is how I remember the moment. It seems to me now that the television cameras were too far away to have captured the falling bodies, that this was a detail I read about later in a newspaper or a magazine. Yet my memory insists on the detail, as though it were necessary for me to see the individuals in order to apprehend the full scale of the tragedy.

[ Return to the review of “Conditional Citizens.” ]



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