Haroon Moghul was just another undergraduate student juggling term papers and romantic crushes when the Sept. 11 terror attacks turned him into America’s Muslim explainer. As the president of New York University’s Islamic Center, he found himself on TV, in print and on airwaves talking faith and terrorism as if he were an authority on both. Little did the media know that Moghul—whose devout parents, both doctors, had moved to the United States in the 1970s from Pakistan and eventually settled in Longmeadow, Mass.—had lived with religious doubt bordering on atheism for most of his adult life, or that his personal life was unravelling just as he was trying to make sense of massive geopolitical shifts. Moghul’s struggles to live as a Muslim man in the United States forms the basis of his complex, insightful and funny memoir. While at first glance it appears as a crisis-of-faith tell-all, the book paints a relentlessly honest picture of the author’s battles with mental health (a bipolar diagnosis), which led to the breakdown of his marriage and a suicide attempt. How to Be a Muslim invites readers into the lives and dreams of teens—first kiss, prom dates, university applications—from the vantage and rarely told point of an all-American, brown, Muslim author.
Moghul is currently a senior fellow and director of development at the Center for Global Policy and the Muslim Leadership Initiative Facilitator at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He lives in Brooklyn. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: The title of your book hints at the notion of self-help and reinvention. The “how-to” part. Can you can tell us why you chose it?
A: Because I’m yet to figure it out. And because writing something down and processing it, sitting with a text and a story, editing and rewriting new drafts—that entire process helped clarify it for myself. Depending on the person, the act of trying to tell your story helps you understand yourself better, helps you come to terms with something that happened. What happened to me was very traumatic; my entire life fell apart. I found myself regularly contemplating suicide. I thought to myself in those moments, “How did I screw up so badly and end up in this situation?” It took me a long time to recover—and I’m not saying I’ve fully recovered or that this is a simple happy story about reinvention, but there’s this element of confusion. This is something I want to be but not something I fully understand how to be. When I was growing up, we often heard Islam in the form of a slogan: “Islam is the solution,” but no one ever told me that Islam can be a burden… Very few Muslims write about Islam creatively because I don’t think we’re given permission to. I think that’s the bane of modern Islam. It’s been reduced to slogans.
Q: Knowing about Islam and living as a Muslim seems to be the main conflict in the book. How do you see the differences and tensions between the two?
A: In the last year we heard President Trump ask the question: “Who’s a Muslim?” because he wants to ban us. He thinks there’s an easy answer to that question. A lot of people I interact with in my social circles tend to be a little bit liberal and cosmopolitan and nevertheless come up really short on Islam. If anything, they ask patronizing questions: why should you be a Muslim? The questions that most Muslims struggle with are how should I be a Muslim or how can I be a Muslim? The tension emerges from a great misunderstanding of Islam specifically. I have no expertise of other religious traditions so I’m not going to opine on them, but in Islam the more you know about the religion, the more likely you’re going to go to hell. Many of your readers will find that paradoxical because we tend to think of religion as a way of making ourselves feel better and a way of damning and excluding infidels or reprobates or heretics or what have you. It was very hard for me to find an Islam that belongs to me and doesn’t feel like it’s been imposed on me.
Q: Elsewhere in the book, you suggest that Islam is more than just a religion but a cultural identity, a heritage, an ethnic marker. It’s always been this way, but it’s become irrevocably so since 9/11. Do you agree?
A: Absolutely. The TSA [Transportation Security Administration, part of the U.S. Department Homeland Security] has probably converted more people to Islam than any [religious] order in the last 100 years. It doesn’t matter how you choose to self-identify or even if your religiosity is private; when you get to the airport you know how you’re going to be treated based on your name. Possibly also because of the colour of your skin and the colour of your passport. But you can’t escape public Islam anymore. It’s not just something that has emerged since 9/11 but has got worse in the last few years—most infamously with Trump’s Muslim ban. It doesn’t matter whether you’re religious or not. It doesn’t even matter what you think about religion. You don’t even have to be Muslim; you just have to come from Muslim country or have some kind of Muslim ancestry and that’s enough to have you banned.
Q: You were thrust into American and global media after 9/11 as a spokesperson for Muslims at large, a population estimated at 1.6 billion. Take me back to that moment in time, and how do you feel about your role as the Muslim explainer?
A: I’m looking at my window right now and it’s a perfect blue sky. And if you ask people about Sept. 11, the one thing they’ll tell you is how serenely, awesomely, perfectly blue the sky was. The juxtaposition of how the day began and what happened is jarring even now. That day you felt extremely unsafe and overwhelmed and doubly scared because you knew it was going to be blamed on you. That people would have to find something to target their anger towards, something outside themselves, and that happened to be Muslims. The one thing that’s missing from the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, and I don’t imagine we’ll see it any time soon, is that there’s no memorial to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died because of how the memory of 9/11 was used. Memory is a very interesting thing. We very selectively curate our story and then stop when it begins to tell other people’s stories and forces us to accept some kind of culpability. One reason I wrote [this book] is that there’s not enough Muslims writing, Pakistanis writing, not enough people of faith writing about the complexities of our experiences.
Q: In non-fiction in particular. Would you agree with that?
A: I think in general. There are so many stories that need to be told and are not being told. We tend to want to put things in boxes: “This is a memoir about a Muslim,” or “This is a memoir about a woman or a normal personal.” There’s a certain story that assumes to be universal. Everyone else is ethnic fiction. Anyone can aspire to universality. What I wanted is to talk about how someone raised Muslim struggles with the same stuff that everyone else theoretically could. Obviously, the particulars are different, but everybody can sympathize with being forced to answer for their identity, the colour of their skin or their religion. A lot of people struggle with mental illness or romance or failed marriages—these are all parts of my own struggle. I read them through the lens of Islam because that’s the particular language I grew up in, but the grammar is universal.
Q: A big part of the book is your struggle with sexuality, and you cite lack of sex education as the main reason. Your parents told you that boys and girls don’t touch. What change, if any, do you hope to inspire by writing so openly about your sexual frustrations and anxieties as a Muslim American?
A: You make me realize that at some point my father will read this book so I’m having some minor cardiac arrest.
Q: That’s the risk of writing family memoirs.
A: I didn’t think this through. What was so astonishingly confusing to me growing up was that I liked women. I grew up in a milieu where we didn’t talk about sexuality. We didn’t talk about romance. None of these things are modelled or explained to us. And so we’re left fumbling in the dark and the intensity of sexual desire completely floored me. I’ve since learned that people who are bipolar struggle not just with intimacy but with multiple intimacies, multiple relationships and divorces and many things besides. Being conscious of it is to begin to try to put these things under control. For a long time I thought there was something deeply abnormal and wrong about what I wanted.
Q: Do you see the conversation around sexuality in Muslim communities changing?
A: I see the conversation improving within the Muslim communities and within the West generally. Since the 1990s we’ve become more comfortable with alternative forms of sexual identity, attraction and practice. The Muslim communities that I’m part of have made huge progress. They’re much more open and comfortable talking about these things. It doesn’t mean there’s not a ways to go. We as a country and Western culture generally have gotten out of the box that sexuality is only one thing.
Q: Something else that I also loved about the book is your willingness to talk about mental health. Brown cultures in general have a long way to go in that area, and Muslim leaders often prescribe faith as a remedy and Western values as the culprit.
A: We don’t have a lot of training in this space. I do think that pre-modern Muslims had their own language, institutions and ways to deal with mental health, which, obviously, are not as rigorous as modern mental health and behavioural sciences are. Nevertheless, they understood that this was not just a spiritual flow or personality shortcoming. It’s something very real, and very dangerous. There are times when I think being bipolar gives me the ability to see and want and write things that other people cannot and do not. One of those is writing. Creativity is something that co-presents with bipolarity. There are other times when being bipolar legitimately sucks and leads you to a point where you want to kill yourself. Very odd thing when your brain which, evolutionarily speaking, should want you to survive is telling you to die. You’re right that Muslims don’t know how to talk about this. The advice they give is not just s–t, it’s dangerous.
Q: You tackle very serious subjects but the tone of the book is humorous, wry and you made me laugh out loud at several points. Why was that such an important stylistic or narrative strategy for you?
A: I remember being in a panel in Jerusalem, and afterwards a very well-intentioned man came to me and said, “I didn’t know that Muslims could be funny.” Which is amazing because the general picture many have of us is puritanical, obsessed and prone to violence. I always wanted to do stand-up comedy. I was too scared to do it. I signed up for a stand-up routine in Greenwich Village and backed out at the last minute. Little did I know that the following year, because of 9/11, I would become the centre of attention and have no choice but to do it. I learned that humour is a way of relating and connecting to people, especially when you’re a minority or misunderstood. It has the power that other forms of conversations or writing don’t have. With all the problems I had, sometimes the only way of coping with it is to make fun of yourself.
Q: The narrative in the book ends around 2013. So much has changed since Nov. 8, 2016, when Trump was elected. Why did you choose not to include any reference to this new era in the lives of American Muslims?
A: I like to confound expectation. Part of it is that the story had to end at some point. When you write, you have your material, your plot, your story. That seemed like a very powerful point to end on. I ended on a note of uncertainly because at that moment I was living in profound uncertainty. If I were to write a sequel, probably from the safety of Canada, it would be How to be A Muslim: A North American Story or How to Be an American: The Donald Trump Story. I didn’t want my story to get reduced to national security complications. Obviously 9/11 is the most important part, but that’s because it affected me directly and very personally as someone who lived in and considered himself a New Yorker. When it comes to Donald Trump, we don’t know how this man will affect us or the rest of the world.
Q: That story is still unfolding.
A: What a disaster it will be.
Q: What has life been like for you since his election?
A: I was convinced Trump was going to win a year before the election. I knew the moment he made fun of that disabled journalist and his numbers didn’t drop. That’s when I knew there was something deeply dangerous about him and profoundly disappointing about my fellow Americans. You don’t make fun of people who have less than you. You aim comedy up. If comedy is aimed down, you’re a jerk. You laugh at the powerful as a way of bringing them down to your level or bring yourself up to theirs. He doesn’t actually laugh. I’ve never seen him do anything other than smirking. He doesn’t have a sense of humour. He’s just mean.
My initial fear was that Trump would be something in the order of an American fascist, be militaristic and aggressive. My take on it after the first 100 days is that he’s dangerous in a different way. Fascists are dangerous because they’re competent people. Trump is incompetent. My fear is not just as an American Muslim, although that’s part of it, but as an American who believes very strongly in the idea of a pluralistic, cosmopolitan, transatlantic Western identity. What he’s doing to the West and the United States, I don’t think the U.S. can recover from this. I think we’ve decided, as a friend of mine put it, to stick our heads in the toilet and flush. At what’s possibly the peak of our power, we committed national suicide because we’ve voted in a man who not only has no qualifications for the office but has gone out of his way to denigrate and defeat the United States as a country. That itself is a book. Why does a country so powerful do that to itself?