I first discovered Haroon Moghul when I noticed him following me on Twitter. Normally, this wouldn’t have attracted my attention, except that I was pretty sure that he disagreed with most of what I was writing. In today’s world of social media silos and political polarization, it’s rare to come across people who seek out viewpoints that vastly differ from their own. And given that much of my writing relates to the ideological minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I almost never encounter them. Yet here was a Muslim writer and thinker who seemed to be following my work even though he often fundamentally disagreed with it—not to attack it, or me, but simply to learn.
Naturally, I asked Moghul to lunch.
From him I learned about a new Muslim-Jewish project in which he’d recently taken part: the Muslim Leadership Initiative of the Shalom Hartman Institute. The program was an innovative effort by brave Jews and Muslims to understand each other’s stories not by dancing around the concerns that divide their communities—Israel/Palestine chief among them—but by tackling them head-on. Fast forward to today, and Moghul is a full-time MLI staff member overseeing the fifth cohort of young Muslim leaders who will be joining the program in Jerusalem.
Moghul’s new memoir, How to Be a Muslim: An American Story, is many things, but it is not about this remarkable work, which began after the time period covered in the book. But in unstintingly chronicling Moghul’s personal struggles with his faith, mental illness, and both the Western and Muslim worlds, the book does explain how the author became someone who could straddle even the widest ideological divides without fear.
I spoke with Moghul about his memoir, his faith, and his work.
This is a book about yourself, and in some sense, for yourself—you describe it as a form of therapy—and for fellow Muslims who are looking for answers in a very difficult modern world. But it’s also clearly intended for people quite different from yourself, including those who may not know very much about Islam, or even met any Muslims. What do you hope these people will take from it?
I think there’s a few things that I wanted to get across. The first is what it’s like to struggle with doubt and faith and mental illness, and how that plays out in a person’s life. Because I think that’s a story that a lot of people, regardless of faith, can relate to. I also wanted to communicate something of the complexity and richness of being Muslim. A lot of the conversations we have about Islam are pretty one-dimensional; they’re either glowingly positive or astonishingly negative, and I wanted to strike out a middle ground, which is where I think most Muslims—like most complex religious people—are. Finally, I thought it was an important story in terms of what it’s like to feel a cleavage between your public self and your private self, and there’s probably a lot of folks in this day and age who can relate to some of that.
People often look at visibly religious individuals from the outside and impose certain expectations on them, assuming they hold certain beliefs or fulfill certain roles, even when it’s not where those individuals actually are in their own faith journey.
Yeah. For a lot of folks who are Muslim, the last sixteen years [since 9/11] have been pretty much this incredibly challenging time where you might have to work out your personal relationship to religion while the entire country and even the whole planet has a debate about your religion and the value of your religion in the world.
In working out that personal relationship for yourself in the book, you cite a wide array of authors and thinkers, from filmmakers to theologians. Are there any particular books or writers, Muslim and not, that you looked to as models for your own writing?
There are a few books that probably influenced me pretty considerably. One was Yossi Klein Halevi’s Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist. [Halevi is Moghul’s colleague at the Shalom Hartman Institute Muslim Leadership Initiative, and his book chronicles his journey from the far-right Jewish fringe.] I found it really interesting and helpful and enlightening to think about what it’s like to inhabit an ideology and then to come to terms with your own relationship to religion. To struggle with growing up and becoming an adult and realizing that maybe the way that you think about your tradition isn’t sufficiently complicated to reflect who you are as a person. Although I think calling my book “Memoirs of a Muslim Extremist” would probably have been a bit more charged in this political environment.
Reza Aslan’s book, No God But God, which is not a memoir per se but is very much an intimate, personal, and accessible study of Islam, had something that I wanted to capture, which is the ability to communicate a complex tradition in a way that anyone can pick up and say, “Oh, now I get that!”
And there’s also [ex-hasid] Shulem Dean’s book, All Who Go Do Not Return. He and I end up on the opposite side of the same question, namely, are we supposed to believe in God, but what I found so affecting was how incredibly heart-wrenchingly honest he was. There were a few points in that book where I started tearing up because I was overwhelmed by what he was going through, and I was moved by the incredible courage it took for him to go through that life and then for him to tell that story. I recognize that even though his journey and mine go in different directions, there is something really inspiring and important about sharing your story, and for people who are struggling with the same demons to know that they’re not alone.
You clearly have a great affinity for science fiction, which comes across not just in this book, but in your other writings. You’ve even pondered the theological implications of extraterrestrial life. Many Jews have also been captivated by and contributed to science fiction over the years. Is there any particular work of science fiction that better helped you understand your own faith?
I don’t know if it helped me understand Islam, but Michel Faber’s book The Book of Strange New Things is a novel about a Christian missionary who’s sent to a planet where there’s an indigenous species that’s intelligent but much more primitive than humanity. It’s a really cool book because this missionary isn’t exactly sure why this species wants to become Christian, and he also has no idea what’s going through their heads because he has to learn their language and their culture and it’s so different. So it’s this incredibly intimate portrait of what it’s like to try to communicate something that’s deeply important to yourself to people who are literally alien. And there was an element of that with my own experience with my parents’ [Muslim immigrant] background—feeling like, as a minority, you’re always the stranger and you’re constantly forced into translation. And I think that’s something I tried to convey with the book and do with the book.
Something that comes up in the acknowledgements to the book is that you didn’t get to include a significant portion of your life, because books have editorial deadlines and memoirs have to end somewhere before the subject’s actual life picks up. What didn’t make it in, and is there anything you wish could have been included?
Probably the most glaring omission is how I ended up working for the Shalom Hartman Institute, but you have to end a story at some point, and I thought it made sense to end the book right when I came back from Dubai and was trying to figure out how the different pieces of my life go back together. It’s a really difficult process, and I didn’t want to end the book on this simple, happy-go-lucky, Everything’s great now! I figured it all out! Now my life will have no problems and I will never make the same mistake twice! (I have.)
What I can say is that for me to work at a Jewish educational institution that proudly identifies itself as Zionist, it’s really weird and probably could not be understood without understanding my story. So, this book is the story of how I got to a place where I could contemplate working at a place like Hartman, and actually enjoy it and appreciate it and shrug off any criticism I got for it. But I had to go through all those failures, and all those trials, and all those tragedies, in order to get to a point where I’m okay with this.