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.
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.