Posted on September 17, 2020

I’m a Muslim and Arab American. Will I Ever Be an Equal Citizen?

Laila Lalami, New York Times, September 17, 2020,

“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.


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. {snip}

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.” {snip}

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.” {snip}

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 {snip}

Culturally too, we are usually treated as a separate race, hence our almost universal portrayal as villains or victims in popular media. {snip}


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.