What Does It Mean to Be an American?

Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.

Ted Cruz doesn’t get that citizenship is about who you are, not what you believe.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Last year the ABC News series What Would You Do? visited Kingston, New York, a small Hudson Valley city, to see how the locals would react if a Muslim shopkeeper faced verbal abuse from a bigoted anti-Muslim customer. The producers hired a bunch of actors, one portraying a Muslim man working a deli counter and the others a rotating cast of incorrigible racists who loudly objected to being served by a “terrorist.” Rather encouragingly, the people of Kingston rose to the man’s defense again and again, and the emotional payoff came when a U.S. Army soldier in uniform offered an eloquent defense of the freedom of religion before telling the racist provocateur to buzz off. You will not be shocked to learn that the good people at Upworthy, the perfecters of earnest virality, shared the resulting video clip with their legions of followers.

Despite my deeply ingrained cynicism, I found this little slice of Americana heartwarming: Simple decency is a wonderful thing. The specifics of this contrived scenario also resonated with me, as I was raised in a Muslim household and, despite my lack of a religious impulse, continue to identify with the Muslim community in a loose way. Ages ago, when I was just starting the ninth grade, I recall watching a 1993 Firing Line debate on PBS in which Pat Robertson jokingly stated that no Muslim should be allowed in the Cabinet because surely no one would want Muammar al-Qaddafi to serve as secretary of defense. The audience laughed, but I found myself perturbed. Did Robertson understand that there are living, breathing Muslim Americans out there?

But this was long before the 9/11 terror attacks, at which time the specter of an Islamic fifth column became particularly vivid. And while that What Would You Do? episode might reassure us that Americans, regardless of religious beliefs or ethnic backgrounds, are one big happy family, that’s not always true.

Consider the tale of Mufid A. Elgeeh, a 30-year-old Yemen-born naturalized U.S. citizen who stands accused of aiding and abetting ISIS (and who may or may not have been plotting, or at least fantasizing about, terrorist acts of his own). Elgeeh ran Halal Mojo and Food Mart in Rochester, New York, where one assumes he interacted with all kinds of customers who knew nothing about his roiling inner life. Was Elgeeh subjected to bigotry and abuse, like that cooked up by the producers of What Would You Do?, and one day it just made him snap? Was he a devout believer who always identified more with a global community of radical jihadis than with the United States and his Rochester neighbors? I have no idea. I do know, however, that this less-than-heartwarming story is one that we’ve been hearing a lot lately as ISIS lures recruits from the West. The reality is that some Muslim Americans and Muslim citizens of other Western democracies identify less with their countries of citizenship than with an Islamic identity they find more inspiring.

Scott Brown, the former senator from Massachusetts who is running for a Senate seat in New Hampshire, has called for stripping homegrown jihadis like Elgeeh of their U.S. citizenship. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has since embraced the idea. Several commentators have warned that Brown’s proposal is a dangerous and foolish one that exaggerates the extent of the problem. Indeed, America’s Muslims are not nearly as radical as Belgium’s or even Canada’s, if the per capita number of ISIS-joining jihadis is anything to go by.

But focusing on the fact that Muslim Americans like Elgeeh are outliers prevents us from thinking through the larger issue of what it means to be a member of the American community.  Brown and Cruz appear to be in favor of creating an ideological test to determine who belongs in the United States. But I feel like the issue here is more a cultural than an ideological one.

Let’s all agree that if you’re fighting alongside ISIS and you’re plotting to murder your fellow Americans in a series of terror attacks and you spend your spare time recruiting anti-American guerrilla fighters, you’re not exactly a candidate for Patriot of the Year. (In fact, you might be guilty of treason, a crime that has long been punishable by death.) Stripping these individuals of citizenship would tell us that these people were never really Americans in the first place. But is that right?

Though the United States talks a good game about being a country based on ideas—freedom! democracy! liberty!—we are, whether we acknowledge it or not, a nation-state just as much as France, Germany, and Italy are nation-states. We are a diverse nation-state, to be sure, but we have a core English-speaking culture rooted in the traditions of Northern European settlers and the descendants of enslaved Africans, which has been enriched by contributions from various other groups, including, in relatively small numbers, Muslim immigrants. Just as there are teetotaling Frenchmen who bitterly hate cheese, there are American Bolsheviks and anarchists and Islamists. Like it or not, most of these people watched the same Saturday morning cartoons you did, and grew up mouthing the lyrics to the same songs. You can’t undo the fact that these people are Americans, even if you find their beliefs loathsome. Their Americanness is about who they are, not what they believe.

Instead of debating how and when we should terminate citizenship, we ought to focus more on how we grant citizenship in the first place. Many advanced democracies are tightening their naturalization procedures to ensure that new citizens have the cultural knowledge they need to be full members of the national community. With this in mind, countries are lengthening residency requirements and, in some cases, giving a preference to immigrants who can demonstrate that they are adopting the norms of their adopted country. The United States would be wise to follow suit. For one thing, doing so would help address lingering, unfair doubts about Muslim Americans’ loyalty.

In his 2011 National Affairs essay on “The Muslim-American Muddle,” Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College, describes how many American Muslims find themselves confused about what it means to be active participants in American society. To some degree, this reflects the influence of political Islam, which preaches against national loyalties. But it also reflects “contemporary America’s unwillingness to place serious demands on its citizens.”

Demanding more from new Americans would send clearer signals about the values we share. Making citizenship requirements more stringent wouldn’t guarantee that naturalized Americans like Elgeeh would never again betray their country. Yet it would serve as a reminder that citizenship is more than a matter of convenience—that it is about a common cultural bond that deserves to be taken seriously. The people who were sticking up for the young Muslim shopkeeper in that What Would You Do? episode were doing so because he was their neighbor and fellow American. There’s something very beautiful about that.