Author and CNN commentator Haroon Moghul explores his identity as an American Muslim in the post-9/11 world in his new memoir, “How to Be a Muslim: An American Story.” Tonight at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, Moghul will take part in a candid discourse on his book, his interfaith advocacy work at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the current challenges facing American Muslims.
What does it mean for you to be doing this program at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum?
The September 11th attacks deeply affected me and transformed our country. To be at the Museum, to have the chance to have this conversation, to engage an audience that may not know much about American Muslims, to share my own story – all of these are deeply meaningful to me. I am honored and humbled.
Tell us about your book “How to Be a Muslim: An American Story.” What inspired you to share your story?
My life fell apart. I had not just a good job but a promising career, I was married to someone I’d fallen in love with, I had a rising public profile, I was financially solvent – and then, in a year, all that vanished. I wrote “How to Be a Muslim” because I needed to make sense of what had gone wrong, but more than that, too. For a long time there, I didn’t even want to go on, but the experience of writing this story, of knowing I might publish this memoir, kept me alive. Literally. It’s a Muslim journey, yeah. But it’s also a human one, too. We all fall flat on our faces sometimes. That’s not the only reason I put pen to paper, though, even if it’s the main one.
Ask most people what they think of when you say “Islam” and, well, I’m pretty sure most people would say “terrorism.” Now, Islamic extremism is a real and dangerous phenomenon. But the vast majority of Muslims overwhelmingly reject this kind of ideology, not least because the principal victims of Islamic extremism, of late, are Muslims themselves. But it tells you a lot about where things stand when a minority of your community, the very worst from among you, gets to define you. And why’s that? “How to Be a Muslim” was more than me making sense of me. It was trying to make sense of how terrorism shapes Islam, of why the American and global Muslim communities are where they are… it was born out of a need to do more than just say extremism is bad. The better question is, what is good?
Could you tell us about your interfaith work at the Shalom Hartman Institute and beyond?
There are some experiences we have in our lives that are simply blessings. My work for the Shalom Hartman Institute is one of those. And all the more remarkable for its unlikeliness. If you’d asked me five years ago if I could’ve imagined myself working with a Zionist institution, I would’ve scoffed. Not least because I’m not a Zionist, not to mention I’d not even heard of Hartman. But over the past few years I got to work with the institute through a program that brought Muslim leaders to learn about Israel and Judaism. I was so impressed by the sophistication, the kindness, the depth and the genuineness of these sometimes really painful conversations, that I knew I’d found something special.
Here we were – on one side Zionists, on the other pro-Palestinian Muslims – and we were learning to build relationships that didn’t require us to check our social, political and religious commitments at the door. It means a lot to me personally because I get to work with great people and see the kind of intellectual and moral leadership modeled for me every day that I wish so badly my religious community benefited from, but it means a lot to me as an American, too. Is there any greater calling for us today than to learn how to engage respectfully with people different than ourselves? Being mature enough to acknowledge that I might have good reasons for my beliefs, but someone who disagrees with me isn’t a caricature, an opponent and an inveterate enemy, but a human being.
The great calling of our time is learning how to engage the many different ways of being human, of understanding where people are coming from, and finding peaceful and cooperative ways to reconcile where we’d like to be going.
How did 9/11 impact you as an American Muslim? Has that impact changed over time?
I was 21, and I pretty much had no idea what I wanted to do with myself. I thought I was supposed to do with my life what other people wanted me to, even if their plans made me feel dead inside. I believed I had to be a lawyer. In my heart, though, I wished I could’ve studied Czech, Hungarian, Russian, Finnish—Eastern Europe fascinated me. You’ll note this has nothing to do with being Muslim. I wanted to go there, teach there, disappear from the world.
And then the towers were hit, and I was president of one of the most significant Muslim communities in proximity to Ground Zero, and I knew that it was a moral, civic and religious responsibility to contribute to the national conversation, as much as being in any kind of spotlight made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I had to help us make sense of what had happened and to make sure we made choices, as a country, that kept us safer. I was redefined that day. I redefined myself that day.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
I used to ask the wrong questions: Am I Muslim or am I American? Am I western or am I Pakistani? A lot of readers might be stuck on these binaries, too. They might have no idea of the richness of American Muslim life or of the Islamic tradition. I didn’t either. I didn’t permit myself to be complicated, even though I was. All of us are.
Being the member of a sometimes demonized and oftentimes marginalized minority, I suffer from the poverty of stunningly low expectations. A Muslim woman with a job? That’s amazing! A Muslim man who’s open to the world? That’s incredible.
No, I demand better, expect more, and want more, too. I’m American. I’m Muslim. I’m western. I’m Pakistani.
Have you visited the 9/11 Memorial & Museum? What was your experience?
Before the Memorial and Museum opened to the public, I joined a small group of Muslim leaders on a tour of both. The Memorial remains a profoundly moving space; every time I go, I cannot help but be made to reckon with what had happened there, with the thousands of people who lost their lives, with the many who so selflessly gave their lives in rescue, who inspired and reassured a wounded nation, and inevitably I look up at the new World Trade Center, and I am filled with a deep and quiet confidence. We, as New Yorkers, rebuilt, rebounded, we refused to be cowed.
The Museum, however, is a far more challenging space. It is by any measure a remarkable memorial to those who lost their lives, whether in the attacks or by attempting to save those in great danger. But for someone who lived through that day, walking through the Museum forces me to relive that day again, and that is too painful for me. I wonder if it’s the same for others in New York and Washington, D.C., who were present in those cities on those days. Who experienced something of the fear and the violence, from near or from afar.
We should ask what it means to be human. But we should also acknowledge each other’s humanity.
By 9/11 Memorial Staff