Trying to Be an Apolitical Muslim in America

Haroon Moghul’s book How to Be a Muslim tries out a new genre: writing about Islam that’s not about terrorism or war.

Roses are laid on the 9/11 memorial in New York City (Reuters)

Haroon Moghul is tired of reading books about American Muslims and terrorism. The 30-something writer and educator often gives talks and teaches courses, where “people come up to me ... and say, ‘What can I read about Islam that will help me understand who Muslims are?’” he told me. “There are so few books out there that I would recommend. It’s deeply disheartening.”

In How to Be a Muslim, Moghul has tried something new: a memoir about how his “life kind of crashed and burned” around age 32, as he put it. He writes about the pains and hilarities of growing in a South Asian family in bucolic Massachusetts; his lifelong struggle with mental illness and adult diagnosis with bipolar disorder; and his many crushes, including his ex-wife, Hafsa, whom he later divorced. The book is by turns delightful and bizarre; it’s confessional writing about being Muslim, but also about struggles that are likely common across religions.

It’s not exactly apolitical: Moghul’s mental illness is specifically conditioned by the anxiety and pressure of being a “professional Muslim,” as he puts it. But it’s an attempt to claim literary space for American Muslims that’s not about geopolitics. And Moghul has offered up his own life as material.

I spoke with Moghul about politics, confessional writing, and how Muslim communities deal with mental illness. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Green: You were a college student in New York on 9/11. You describe how that moment defined your life as a Muslim in America.

And yet, you wanted to write a book that’s not political. How do you write an apolitical book when your identity has been so thoroughly shaped by politics?

Moghul: I wanted to keep the politics at remove. Terrorism and extremism, the pervasive influence of Islamophobia—they are always there in the background. But I wanted to talk about how that affected me personally. I wanted about the day-to-day existence of a Muslim in America. People’s personal struggles with love, desire, and feelings of guilt; the constant tension every one of us has between what we want to do and what we believe we should do; my own struggles with mental illness, divorce, financial failure, professional failure; losing my job, losing my home: They’re universal struggles that have maybe some Muslim particularities.

There are plenty of books on Islamophobia or America and the Middle East. But there are not a lot of books that actually talk about what this means in a person’s life.

Because I was in New York, and I was president of the Muslim club at New York University, I was forced into that response: I became a professional Muslim. A lot of people in my generation became professional Muslims. The most disheartening part is that we recognize, with the election of Donald Trump and the rise of far-right movements across the West, that this is probably going to be with us for our lifetimes.

Emma Green: You tried to get away from politics this through a vulnerable, first-person narrative, talking about everything from your break-ups to your struggle with mental. What was the appeal of this kind of writing?

Haroon Moghul: Sometimes, saying things out loud breaks their power over you. We have a tendency in America to frame Islam as completely other. People on the far right want to know who’s Muslim, possibly to keep us out of the country. And then you have people on the left who wonder why anyone would be Muslim because they’re skeptical of religion in general. For most Muslims, the question is not who is a Muslim, or why be a Muslim. It’s how to be a Muslim. I wanted to go somewhere beyond the apology literature, of which there is way too much in the Muslim community.

“If a community is willing to be critical of itself, it’s actually much stronger.”

Green: What do you mean by “apology literature”?

Moghul: To me, a lot of the literature on Islam has its head in the sand. You have this “Islam is a religion of peace” mantra, which is fine if you mean Islam should be a religion of peace. But clearly, there are many Muslims who do not believe that, and believe their violent worldview is justified and encouraged by Islam. You have to deal with that. You can’t simply wish it away.

Green: You talk a lot about Muslims’ fear of perceived weakness and vulnerability. And you also talk a lot about mental illness.

Do you think there’s any connection between these two themes—a seemingly renewed focus on mental illness among some American Muslims and this environment of anxiety they’re living in?

Moghul: I don’t know what it’s like to be—I guess the word is normal? I don’t know what it’s like not to be bipolar. I don’t know what it’s like not to think about killing yourself every so often. I didn’t write this because I wanted to air dirty laundry, or because I was thinking about how this would affect Muslims politically. Writing saves me.

If this gives someone a little sliver of hope, especially but not only in Muslim communities, then I think it’s worth it. I’m sure there are a lot of kids out there who grow up in communities where they’re not told about mental illness, and maybe they’re told that it’s a spiritual disease, and they’re struggling alone. There’s this common Muslim response when someone is genuinely depressed: They’ll tell them to pray more, or that it’s because God’s angry at them, which is the worst thing you can tell someone. It’s basically telling them that in addition to all the other ways they’ve failed, they’ve also failed spiritually. My hope is that this actually strengthens people and gives them some hope.

If a community is willing to be critical of itself, it’s actually much stronger and much more likely to survive than a community that is scared of looking at itself with two eyes open.

Green: Do you think there’s discomfort in American Muslim communities with talking about mental illness?

Moghul: There is discomfort. But there’s been tremendous change. One of the most positive developments of the past 15 or 20 years is that we’re developing a class of professional imams and chaplains who know what they’re talking about, and understand what it is to minister to people and serve a congregation. There’s been tremendous progress in this space.

I still come across a lot of people who are struggling alone and afraid of saying anything. But I also meet a lot of religious leaders and community leaders who will talk about mental illness, and who are willing to not only bring it up but put resources behind it. So it’s changing. Maybe not as fast as it should be. But it’s changing.