On April 25, 2013, I took the oath to become a citizen of the United States. Perhaps only those who have taken this oath can fully understand how I felt that afternoon in Boston. I felt a strong sense of belonging, and tears welled up in my eyes more than a few times during the hourlong ceremony.
I have no reason to doubt that the 1,834 other men and women who took the oath with me also felt that special sense of homecoming. On that sunny afternoon, it seemed unreal that just 10 days earlier, another new citizen of this country had taken up arms against it—against us—in the very same city.
As the whole world now knows, that new U.S. citizen was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, only 19 years old. He had taken the oath just seven months earlier—on Sept. 11, in fact, a grim irony whose lessons we are still struggling to learn. His alleged partner in crime and mentor was his elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who himself had applied for citizenship and was well into the process, awaiting approval and the invitation to take the same precious oath.
That approval and invitation would surely have come, because Americans—we Americans—are a generous people. And yet, strangely, today’s debate about immigration reform has little to do with keeping out people like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
The Tsarnaev brothers are emblematic of the divided loyalties of our times—and they are not the only ones. Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani national, is a naturalized U.S. citizen who lived the American dream: He arrived on a student visa, married an American citizen, graduated from college, worked his way up the corporate ladder to become a junior financial analyst for a cosmetics company in Connecticut, became a naturalized citizen at the age of 30 and then, a year later, in 2010, tried to blow up as many of his fellow citizens as possible in a failed car bombing in New York’s Times Square.
Prior to sentencing, the judge asked Mr. Shahzad about the oath of allegiance he had taken, in which he did «absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.» The defendant replied: «I sweared [sic], but I didn’t mean it.» He then expressed his regret about the failure of his plot and added that he would gladly have sacrificed a thousand lives in the service of Allah. He concluded by predicting the downfall of his new homeland.
Every naturalized citizen has a unique story to tell. My own journey to America was not only geographical but also intellectual, emotional and cultural. I grew up in Muslim communities in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. In my early years, these communities (with the exception of Saudi Arabia) were moderate in their religious beliefs and practices.
But during my teenage years, I saw a change. Friends and family members began turning to Islamic scripture, interpreted literally, for answers to all their problems. I saw religious leaders who emphasized ritual observance replaced by a new breed of imams who urged hostile action, even violence, against Jews, «infidels,» and Muslims who neglected their religious duties or violated Shariah, the Islamic law.
I wasn’t immune to the appeal of this new fundamentalism. I myself joined the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and social movement in which we were urged to implement Shariah in our families, communities and nations. For a young woman, this might mean strict obedience to her husband and quiet propagation of the message; for a young man, it might mean seeking martyrdom through a violent attack against the infidels. One person might contribute money, another his home, yet another his political and social connections. What mattered was being united around the ideal of a world ruled by Shariah.
Over time, I began to question that ideal. My journey included a decade in the Netherlands, where I lived a life of profound dissonance, mentally vowing to remain steadfast in my faith while my lifestyle drifted further and further from the narrow Islamic path. I knew that the freedom I experienced in the Netherlands was supposed to be abhorrent and evil, yet I found myself overwhelmed with gratitude for it and for the generosity with which the Dutch people welcomed me and so many other émigrés. I discovered that I was more comfortable with the idea of treating women, gay people, and people of different races and faiths equally than I had ever been with the strictures of Shariah.
It was this journey from a world dominated by strict adherence to religious law into a world of freedom both for and from religion that led me to that ceremony in Boston, where I finally became a citizen of the country that, above all others, represents freedom to the world. I have devoted the past decade of my life to working as hard as I can to expose the threat posed by what I label, as carefully as possible, «political Islam.»
It’s a subject about which I know a great deal. Political Islam killed my Dutch friend Theo van Gogh, who dared to collaborate with me in making the film «Submission,» which criticizes the mistreatment of women in the name of Islam. Adherents of political Islam regularly threaten me, an apostate from their faith. Political Islam eventually made my life in the Netherlands impossible. If it were not for political Islam, I would almost certainly still be Dutch.
What is political Islam? It is not precisely the same as the spiritual dimension of the faith. Islam is multidimensional. It has a religious and social aspect but also a very strong political dimension. Political Islam is a comprehensive vision of ideas and ideals derived from Islamic scripture as interpreted by various scholars widely accepted as authorities on its meaning. Virtually all of these scholars agree that Muslim societies must accept Allah as the sovereign power and struggle to abide strictly by Shariah law as exemplified in the Sunna (the life, words and deeds of the Prophet). Political Islam prescribes a set of specific social, economic and legal practices in a way that is very different from the more general social teachings (such as calls to practice charity or strive for justice) found in the spiritual dimension of Islam, Christianity, Judaism and other world religions.
All of this, obviously, flies in the face of the American—and more broadly Western—ideals of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. But most Americans ignore the fundamental conflict between political Islam and their own worldview. Perhaps this is because they generally assume that «religion,» however defined, is a positive force for good and that any set of religious beliefs, however unusual, should be considered acceptable in a tolerant society. I agree with that.
The problem arises when those who adhere to a particular faith use it as divine license to break the law. It is a wonderful truth about America—one of its powerful attractions for millions of immigrants like me—that you may think and say whatever you wish as long as you do not act on your beliefs in a way that harms others. Unfortunately, a minority of the adherents to political Islam wish to take violent action in support of their beliefs—threatening the lives of innocents like those killed and maimed as they stood watching the Boston Marathon.
It is reasonable to ask yourself: How many more young men like Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev are already living a double life in America, ready to take up arms for the cause of political Islam? And how many more will be naturalized this year? None? That seems pretty unlikely.
In a 2011 Pew survey, 1% of American Muslims said that suicide bombings were «often justified»—a tiny proportion, to be sure. The overwhelming majority of American Muslims want to lead peaceful lives. But 7% of those surveyed said that suicide bombers were «sometimes justified,» and 5% said they were «rarely justified.» Taking Pew’s conservative estimate that Muslims now constitute 0.6% of the adult population of the U.S., this means that more than 180,000 American Muslims regard suicide bombings as being justified in some way.
Still more worrisome, a 2007 survey by Pew revealed that Muslim Americans under the age of 30 are twice as likely as older Muslims to believe that suicide bombings in defense of Islam can be justified. The same survey revealed that 7% of American Muslims between the ages of 18 and 29 had a «favorable» view of al Qaeda.
To repeat: The proportion may be small, but the number of Americans committed to political Islam and willing to contemplate violence to advance it is surely not trivial. And rising immigration from the Muslim world is likely to increase the proportion of Americans sympathetic to political Islam.
A 2013 Pew report revealed the extraordinarily large proportion of Muslims around the world who favor making Shariah the official law of their own countries: 91% of Iraqi Muslims and 84% of Pakistanis, for example. Comparably high proportions favor the death penalty for apostates like me. Are immigrants to the U.S. drawn exclusively from the tiny minority who think otherwise? I doubt it.
When trying to explain the violence of some political Islamists, some Western commentators blame hard economic circumstances, dysfunctional family circumstances, confused identity, the generic alienation of young males and so on. In other quarters, the mistakes of American foreign policy are advanced as an explanation. Even if one accepts these arguments—and these factors may indeed play a role in exacerbating the sense of violent alienation among many young Muslims—it remains hard to understand why a convinced political Islamist would sincerely want to become an American citizen.
The naturalized citizen swears to «support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic…bear true faith and allegiance to the same…[and] bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.» Naturalized citizens tie their own destiny to the destiny of this society, not their former one, for better or worse. So the potential bomber takes an oath to defend the Constitution and the U.S. against all enemies, while committed in his heart to a radically different political order.
The challenge that this would-be bomber poses for us is not to change our foreign policy or improve economic conditions in the Muslim world. We already do that. The challenge is to uncover the deceit of such phony citizens.
One measure employed during the Cold War was to question prospective citizens about whether they had ever been members of the Communist Party, a recognition that communism was an ideology fundamentally hostile to the American way of life. That question about the Communist Party is still asked today, even though the threat posed by communism has receded to a few desperate holdouts. I was surprised to encounter it not once but twice during my own application process. And it got me thinking: Is it not time to update the application form, substituting political Islam for Communism?
Of course, the question alone would do nothing to uncover deceit on the part of a determined terrorist. But it would establish the principle that adherence to political Islam, with its dreams of a society ruled by Shariah (not to mention a world ruled by a restored caliphate), is incompatible with the terms of the oath of allegiance.
During my application process, the Citizenship and Immigration Services requested that I show up at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in downtown Boston only twice—once for fingerprints and pictures, a second time for an interview with a civil servant to review my application. It was a purely bureaucratic procedure, empty of any larger moral or political meaning—as it must have been for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Faisal Shahzad and as it would have been for Tamerlan Tsarnaev, too.
The question now is whether the interview process should remain so devoid of meaning. Is that what we want for the next zealot of political Islam who wants to enjoy the benefits of American citizenship until the day he tries to slaughter as many of us as possible?
A half-century ago, the U.S. turned away from the era when immigration was restricted with the deliberate intention of keeping down the number of Chinese and other ethnic groups, who were deemed undesirable. I have no wish to go back to those bad old days. There should be no discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity or faith. But it is not enough to confine the current debate on immigration reform to a narrow argument about the future of illegal immigrants. I believe that we are entitled to filter out would-be citizens who are ideologically and morally opposed to the U.S. and pose a threat to its population.
Every applicant should be interviewed by an ethnically and religiously diverse panel made up of experts on ideological extremism, who would then advise the government on whether or not to allow the applicant to proceed along the road to citizenship. Muslim applicants need not feel singled out; the panel would look out for any individual whose political convictions, religious or otherwise, radically clash with the government and principles to which the applicant is preparing to swear allegiance.
This would include any and all extremists who openly advocate or engage in political violence as a means for attaining their ideal society. Examples would include members of terrorist organizations such as the FARC in Colombia, the PKK in Turkey, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and so on. The most important question is not what they believe but what they do—or believe it would be legitimate to do. Requiring candidates for citizenship to respond to questions from such a panel might do more than all the other inconvenient, expensive, and undesirable measures to combat terrorism that we currently put up with.
A big job to organize and implement? Absolutely. But such screening is necessary to ensure that the U.S. continues to draw and naturalize people who are genuinely attracted by what makes the country great and who want to make their own contribution to that greatness, while keeping out enemies bent on our demise.
«I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion: so help me God.» Those closing words of the Oath of Allegiance are now etched indelibly in my memory. But as I said them, I thought of the Tsarnaev brothers, whose mental reservations about America grew to the point that they were prepared to sow murder and mayhem.
Immigration reform that does not make it harder for such people to settle in the U.S. would be, to say the least, very incomplete.
Ms. Hirsi Ali is a founder of the AHA Foundation and author of «Infidel» and «Nomad: My Journey from Islam to America.» She is a fellow at the Belfer Center of Harvard’s Kennedy School and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.