(RNS) Haroon Moghul, a Pakistani-American writer and educator, has written an intimate memoir about growing up Muslim in America. “How to Be a Muslim” is a spiritual trial by fire of how this second-generation Muslim American came to embrace his identity amid the gale winds of 9/11.
Moghul, who is 36, writes candidly about his flirtation with atheism, the breakup of his marriage, his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and his work facilitating dialogue between American Muslims and Jews.
The book’s title, he said, tries to convey a central issue facing young Muslim Americans:
“We tend to ask one of two questions: Why would anyone be Muslim and who is a Muslim?” Moghul said. “Most Muslims I know are actually struggling with a different question, which is how they’re supposed to be Muslim. What I’m trying to convey with the title is that there’s no easy answer. It’s a lifelong journey. It’s a process of constant struggle, reflection and reinterpretation.”
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You write about growing up in a very traditional Pakistani-American Muslim home. And about rebelling against that and at one point regarding yourself an atheist. What drew you back to Islam?
For me, atheism was a means to an end. I wanted to be part of high school and I thought that religion, as I understood it, was getting in the way of that. I don’t think I was ever intellectually convinced by the idea that the world was not created by God. It felt intellectually dishonest. When you do something because other people expect you to do it, or because it makes life easier, eventually that pops back up and forces you to come to terms with it.
What brought me back to Islam actually was Catholicism. Many of my friends in high school were from religious Catholic families, and getting to know them and their religiosity and the fact that it was in some ways very different from Islam but very similar in other ways was really the first time that I realized that Islam and religion were two different things and that there were different kinds of religion.
Did you actually think of converting?
Very much so. I actually looked at every religion. A big part of the reason I was looking at other religions was that I felt no sense of community with Islam. There were religions I looked at that I found very intriguing and persuasive, but they didn’t offer me any community. So I was really fascinated by Zoroastrianism, but there’s not much of a Zoroastrian religious community. I was drawn to Judaism, but it seemed unlikely to me that someone of a Muslim origin could very easily be part of a Jewish community. Christianity, like Islam, is a very universal faith with incredible diversity, so it felt like this could be home to me. Ultimately, I had a moment that forced me to come to terms with the fact that I was still attached to Islam in a way I didn’t expect but I still have a soft spot for Catholicism.
As an undergraduate at New York University you got very active in the Muslim student association but you still felt in some ways like your faith was fraudulent. Why?
Being part of this team of remarkable students, we transformed the Islamic Center from a very small student club into the most active student institution on campus. It was a pretty incredible, exciting time, which was complicated by the fact that I was not traditionally religious. I felt this burden of, here I was active in the Islamic Center and eventually president of the Islamic Center, and front and center of many of the debates, but my own relationship with Islam was deeply ambivalent. I told myself it was OK. It was just college and I would go on to a suburban South Asia lifestyle, become some sort of lawyer and have a BMW in the garage and do all the right things that South Asians are supposed to do, and then 9/11 happened. And Islam became a very contentious identity, in ways that it wasn’t for most of my college years.
You’re bipolar. Were you hesitant to write about that?
I believed this was an important part of my story and something that needed to be talked about more because a lot of people suffer in silence and they don’t realize there is help they can get, or they think the conditions they have are evidence of a faulty religiosity. I think it’s changing in Muslim communities and in a lot of religious communities. People are finally confronting the fact of mental illness. But there are far too many people who go through this on their own and don’t realize there are people like themselves who struggle with the same problems and have found a way to live with them.
Was it difficult as a practicing Muslim to write about your divorce?
For me, it’s still very difficult to talk about. It feels very much like a personal failure. I know relationships aren’t equations that can be broken down to their component parts and analyzed for mistakes, because people are complicated and they change. But there’s still a part of me that feels like I did something wrong. I was raised with the belief that once you get married, you stay married. It was probably one of the most painful things I’ve gone through.
You faced a lot of criticism in joining up with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. People accused you of betraying the Palestinian cause. How did you navigate that?
At first it was difficult. But on the reflection, I realized a lot of criticism was either unfair or morally inconsistent. For example, to boycott a cultural or academic institution smacks of the deepest hypocrisy. You’re saying you refuse to talk to people because of the actions of their government or institution. If you’re not talking to people you’re never going to reach a point where you have a positive outcome.
And on top of that, I’ve seen people in the Muslim community uncritically embrace (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan, the Turkish president, even as they criticize Donald Trump, when Erdogan is just a Turkish version of Donald Trump. He’s gamed the system, jails his critics; he persecutes people with opinions different from his own, and he’s a bully. I’ve seen countless Muslim organizations line up behind Erdogan because he gives them money.
I do recognize that people have different approaches to Israel-Palestine. That’s fine. I don’t believe my approach is the only approach. But I’ve seen in the work I’ve done tremendous outcomes.
You’re breaking some traditional Muslim conventions in writing honestly about divorce, mental illness, etc. Do you see yourself as a path-breaker?
My feeling is that a lot of Muslims are deeply dissatisfied with how their religion is talked about and how their communities function, or don’t function. My entirely outlandish hope is that this book will give people the courage to rethink things and to see how Islam isn’t some simplistic ideology or political program but an incredibly deep, rich spiritual tradition through which we make sense of ourselves in the world and that we always struggle with. I want Islam to be something more than what it’s reduced to. But I don’t want this to be a book just for Muslims. I wanted to write a story that anyone and everyone could access and say, “The particulars here are different than my own, but I get this story, and it’s helpful for me to hear what it actually feels like for one person to struggle with being Muslim in America and at an especially fraught time.”