On Tuesday I became a citizen of the United States. Almost ten years ago, I was granted permanent residency. Between my Green Card and my naturalization certificate lies the seemingly endless decade of the “war on terror.”
I was in New York on September 11, 2001, but back then I was neither a resident nor a citizen. And if you weren’t a citizen, and you had a Muslim name, you couldn’t help but think that your life was about to change for the worse. I was already teaching at Brooklyn College, on a work visa. I had come to New York in 1990 from Canada to attend graduate school at Columbia University and, when I got the job at Brooklyn College, I transferred my student visa into a work visa and applied for a Green Card. My immigration attorney worked in lower Manhattan, a block away from the towers, and he was among the first people I called to make sure he was fine. He was, thankfully. He was shaken up to be sure, and there was ash all over his building, he told me, but he was okay. His voice was breaking with emotion over the phone.
I remember many things about September 11, the solemnity mixing with the acrid smells in the air in particular, but also the tremulous anxiety surrounding Arabs and Muslims in the city in those days. The sweep arrests that John Ashcroft regularly announced on the airwaves in the first weeks following the attacks sent shudders through all the Arabs and Muslims I knew in the city. We would meet up regularly to trade FBI stories, which was weirdly consoling. There came a point when I realized that every Arab person I knew in New York had either been visited or knew someone who had been visited by the FBI. At that point, I was waiting for my Green Card to arrive and when it did, on October 15, I felt my own personal sigh of national security relief. A Green Card may not carry the protections of citizenship, but it’s a far less vulnerable condition than a work visa.
So much has happened in these ten years: the war in Afghanistan, the drumbeat to war in Iraq, the massive worldwide demonstrations in February and March 2003 to stop the war in Iraq, and the war itself. I remember the night it began, because I called my parents in Canada and surprised myself by crying into the receiver. There is Guantanamo Bay, the sordid revelations of torture and abuse, and the program of “Special Registration,” which required non-immigrant males from a select group of mostly Muslim countries to register their whereabouts with the governments, and which sent shock waves through Arab and Muslim communities across the country. A friend of mine who has lived more of his life here than in the Arab world told me that he never felt more Arab than when he had to register with the government.
There’s more, of course: the Bali terror attacks, the Madrid terror attacks, the London attacks, all completely horrific, immoral and nihilistic. I remember the disgust my friends and I felt whenever Osama bin Laden’s face appeared on a screen, claiming to speak for the Muslim umma and the frustration we felt at being forced to feel that our only options were between bin Laden’s fascism and Bush’s imperialism. Then there was the populist rage that was growing louder against Muslims (who remembers the Dubai Ports World fiasco today?). I never felt more alienated from this country and depressed by its prospects than when I observed the demonstration last September opposed to the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Thousands of people on the streets screaming “No Mosque! No Mosque” was the last thing I thought I would see in New York. It felt like a window was closing on Muslims in the United States.
What sustained me through it all, now that I reflect on it, was my lecturing. I would give talks to audiences across the country about civil liberties during wartime, about torture, about Islam, about the war, and the audiences were full of people who didn’t want a murderous clash of civilizations but needed and wanted a lens through which they could understand this complicated world that they felt they had suddenly been thrust into. (When I lecture in the Arab world, I often find myself telling my Arab audiences this about Americans.) It’s easy to caricature any people, and the caricature of Americans is that they don’t know and don’t care about the rest of the world, but that’s not my experience. The Americans I have encountered (and continue to meet) throughout my travels have always been curious and generous. There is a minority, and it has grown more vocal and powerful and frightening in the last two years, that either fears Islam beyond belief or, more likely, leverages a popular fear for their own agenda. Last year’s anti-Ground Zero Mosque movement illustrates that well, as does this year’s anti-sharia frenzy. But it’s easy to fixate on a cartoon of your opposition, as they themselves prove.
The problem is magnified when government caters to the intelligence of fools. Loudmouth media braying constantly about the Muslim threat also creates huge cleavages in our culture. Brookings just released a survey on this. “Trust in Fox News is highly correlated with negative attitudes about Islam,” they found. “More than two thirds (68 percent) of Americans who most trust Fox News for their information about politics and current events say that the values of Islam are at odds with American values. In contrast, less than half of Americans who most trust broadcast network news (45 percent), CNN (37 percent) or public television (37 percent) agree that Islam is at odds with American values.”
It’s also not surprising that the picture changes when you try to take media and ideology out of the equation. Polling data shows that if you know a Muslim personally, you’re simply less likely to hold negative views of the religion. In my day-to-day interactions with the people of this country, I see a sincere, inquiring, civil America, one that never seems to get represented in the mainstream. Muslim Americans know what I am talking about: the disconnect between the polls and the media coverage and the awkward relations with law enforcement on one hand, and the everyday warmth, generosity and friendship from ordinary Americans on the other.
I could have applied for citizenship years ago, but bureaucracy has never been my strength and I only did so this year, in January. In May, I was granted my citizenship interview. I dutifully studied the 100 (easy) questions on American history, politics and geography and was now wondering what to expect. What I didn’t imagine was that the interview would start off like a scene from a Harold Pinter play. After my name was called, the citizenship officer first escorted me to his office, then shut the door and next instructed me to sit down. I sat down.
“Now stand up,” he said.
I stood up.
“Raise your right hand.” I raised my right hand. He proceeded to swear me in. Then he told me to sit down again, which I did. (This was either exercise or an exercise in authority.) He asked me, “Is your name Moustafa Mohamed Bayoumi.”
I knew the answer. Yes, I answered confidently.
“Do you want your name to be Moustafa Mohamed Bayoumi?”
This seemed like a trick question. I searched for a response. None came. He repeated the question, and I was silent. He became impatient.
“Do you want ‘Mohamed’ to be a part of your name?”
Suddenly, I was swimming in a pool of Jello in Arizona. I couldn’t think of an answer. What did this question mean? Was he kindly trying to suggest to me that “Mohamed” should not be my middle name? Maybe he thinks it will cause me problems in today’s United States? Or perhaps he himself holds the name Mohamed in disfavor? And why did I have to sit down and stand up and sit down again? Why am I breathing hard? Am I really that out of shape? I looked around. I was lost.
“I’m asking you if you want to change your name,” he said, finally, and I later realized I was witnessing how self-reinvention is built into the American system. My full name had served me just fine in my life thus far, so I elected to keep it whole. But the whole exchange left me confused.
I wasn’t being entirely irrational in my suspicions. There have been several lawsuits launched by Muslims because of unexplained delays in their petitions for citizenship. And recently, NYU Law School and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund released a report titled “Under the Radar: Muslims Deported, Detained and Denied on Unsubstantiated Terrorism Allegations.” There are real problems with the system. But I was fortunate that, despite a minor hiccup that required me to return for a second visit, I was granted my petition without any major problems.
The citizenship ceremony itself was revealing. During the processing part prior to the actual swearing-in, we were given voter registration cards (available in four languages) and a woman representing the New York City Commission on Human Rights told us about her organization. She explained how the commission advocates for civil rights protections, and listed the various ways that people routinely encounter discrimination: in employment and in housing, because of their gender, appearance or sexual preference, and due to their accent. “If you have an accent walking into this room, then, unless you’re less than 10 years old, you’re walking out of here with an accent!” she said, and everyone laughed, including the two Chinese — now Chinese Americans — on either side of me. She also told us that it was illegal to discriminate against someone because that person doesn’t speak English, but she said it in English, which left me wondering whether this is the kind of knowledge that everyone, not just new citizens, needs to have.
The judge finally came in. We stood up and sat down (I’m good at this now), and she told us that despite what we hear about all the terrorism, crime and poverty in the US today, the country still holds the promise of a better life for us and our children. She explained how we now have the right to vote and to serve on juries, but she also encouraged us to exercise our other rights, naming our right to speak out and to get involved in the running of the country. Then we were given our certificates. Some people looked very happy. Most frankly seemed in a hurry to get to work.
Why did I become a US citizen? The easy answer is that my life is here now, my Green Card was up for renewal, I’m now married to an American and I don’t have to give up my Canadian citizenship. But there is more to it.
The historian Rogers Smith writes that most people commonly believe that American citizenship is bestowed upon those who “subscribe to egalitarian, liberal, republican principles,” what he terms the “latent” belief in what citizenship is. But, he argues:
When restrictions on voting rights, naturalization and immigration are taken into account, it turns out that for over 80 percent of US history, American laws declared most people in the world legally ineligible to become full US citizens solely because of their race, original nationality or gender. For at least two thirds of American history, the majority of the domestic adult population was also ineligible for full citizenship for the same reason. Those racial, ethnic and gender restrictions were blatant, not “latent.” For these people, citizenship rules gave no weight to how liberal, republican or faithful to other American values their political beliefs may be.
Smith is describing a history of very exclusive versions of citizenship, and during these same periods, the law sanctioned all kinds of official discrimination against various categories of people. We’ve moved beyond those kinds of blatant citizenship exclusions today, and all citizenships are by their nature exclusive anyway. But there is also something essentially inclusive about the American system, namely how the Bill of Rights speaks not of the rights of citizens but of the rights of “the people.”
What this means it that there is a professed value in the United States, one that seems like it is always being contested, of protecting vulnerable minorities, citizens or not, from the passions of the majority. I became a citizen because I believe the fight for preserving the rights of “the people” in the United States, not only other citizens, is worthwhile, and I can do that more effectively as a citizen of the country where I live. In that fight lies the defense of the American values of tolerance and respect. It also means that I can disagree with much of American foreign policy, as I do, and try to change it. Being a citizen of the United States doesn’t mean that I’m any better or worse as a person. (Nor will I drop my Canadian “pardon me?” for the American “What?!”) It means that the United States has recognized me as part of its family, and I have recognized the American people as part of mine. And family relationships, as we all know, require work and communication. I will try to live up to my own professed ideals of fairness and equality for all. And I expect the United States to do the same.