Growing up in New England as a first-generation Pakistani-American, Haroon Moghul was taught that practicing his Islamic faith would make life his better. What he didn’t anticipate was how challenging it could be to be Muslim in America.
In 2001, Moghul was the student leader of New York University’s Islamic Center when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. Shortly thereafter, he was called upon to be a spokesperson for the Muslim community in New York — a role he describes as both a “civic responsibility” and a “tremendous burden.”
“It’s really hard,” he says. “Being Muslim can be a limiting factor where you’re shackled to what people do in the name of Islam in different parts of the world, including here in the United States.”
Moghul has continued to advocate and explain Islam since then, but he acknowledges that he has also grappled with the more personal aspects of his faith. His new memoir, How to Be a Muslim, describes his efforts to reconcile his beliefs with those of his parents, as well as his struggle with bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts.
On what drove him to help create the Islamic Center at NYU
When I was growing up, mosques were pretty much the reserve of men of a certain professional and ethnic background, of a certain sectarian affiliation. The sermons were often barely in English, hardly comprehensible and usually completely irrelevant to the concerns of the time.
I was deeply dissatisfied by that. And when I got to NYU … it was the first time I had ever encountered a large group of diverse Muslims, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if all of us could find a place where we’d feel at home, where being Muslim was something that we got to define for ourselves and not have imposed on us from without?” So we set ourselves to the task of building this really cool, this really dynamic and this really fun institution. And I think it took off precisely because a lot of people were invested in their religious identity, but they didn’t have a place where they could express it.
On how he became a representative of New York’s Muslim community following Sept. 11
I’ve often felt myself to be torn in half between who I believed I was supposed to be — often through the input of parents and elders and religious authorities — and who I thought I wanted to be, which emerged from within myself.
That cleavage was reproduced in the aftermath of Sept. 11. … Suddenly there were two parts to me that a lot of people believed were not only incompatible, but mutually hostile — that I was an American and I was a Muslim. And there are a lot of people, and probably an [increasing] number of people, who think that that conjunction is impossible.
But more to the immediate point, when the attack happened, I was in a place in my life where I thought I would leave the Islamic Center behind, because it felt suffocating and I felt a hypocrite and a fraud. And when the attack happened, I was [the] leader of one of the largest Muslim communities in proximity to ground zero, and one of the few [communities] that was able to talk to media because it was conversant in English and composed of people who had grown up here and had the ability to speak to wider American audiences. And suddenly this task of community building and community organizing — which was only ever supposed to be for a university campus — became part of a national, even international, conversation, which I felt like I had to do, and felt completely and totally unprepared for.
On what being a “professional Muslim” means to him
Every time something bad happens you’re called upon to apologize, to explain. It means that your entire identity is pegged to events in other parts of the world — usually and almost exclusively negative events — and your entire religious life becomes the articulation of why your community is not a problem or should not be perceived as a problem to wider America.
On how Islam has become more of a political identity than a religious one
The tragedy, I think, of contemporary American Islam is that externally we’re defined politically — we’re defined as a national security threat, we’re defined as the “other” of Western civilization. But internally, we’ve begun to reflect that rhetoric and we’ve begun to talk less of ourselves as a spiritual tradition and a religious worldview and more and more as an ethnic community whose boundaries are political. I think that’s the tragedy here.
On his bipolar diagnosis
When I dropped out of law school at the age of 23, I was pretty sure that it was the end of my life. I was so raised in the suburban Pakistani milieu that I believed if I didn’t become a doctor and I didn’t become a lawyer, I literally would have no future. The toll that took on me led me to contemplate for the first time in my life killing myself. And I knew even then that that was abnormal, and I went out to see a family friend, a psychiatrist, spoke to her for a few hours, and she called me back the next day and she said I was bipolar. …
The diagnosis made it harder because I believed that mental illness was a sign of spiritual failure, and so it only confirmed in me this feeling that I had somehow come up short. … I thought that what I was going through was either something exclusive to me, or a product of my inability to live up to being Muslim. So when she told me so casually that there was … a mental illness and a lot of people fell into that category, I didn’t know what to do with that. I do know that I pretty much refused it, because I thought that was an excuse, and the real problem was my lack of religiosity.
On a turning point in his faith, when he went to Dubai and heard an imam speak
The way I was taught Islam when I was growing up was a set of practices that you do so that you don’t go to hell. There was almost nothing there of the idea of actually transforming yourself or having a personal and intimate relationship with God. And what I began to find in Dubai, including at that mosque, was this idea of spirituality as a practice and as a struggle to reach a different point in your life.
What I found so moving about this imam’s prayers was that he very openly and candidly expressed, in beautiful Arabic, his insufficiencies, and I had never encountered that kind of vulnerability in religion. … He was talking about how he’d come up short, and how time and again he had failed as a Muslim, and I had never experienced that kind of frank, open conversation about spiritual shortcomings. I had always treated religious leaders as people who had somehow figured it out and reached a point where they didn’t have any doubt, they didn’t have any questions, they didn’t have any insufficiencies, and that moment, that night in the mosque … was transformative. … It gave me permission to be myself, to accept that just because I don’t pray as often as I should doesn’t mean I can’t have a connection to God or that I can’t be Muslim, and it also meant that I had to find a spiritual practice that worked for me.
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.