Haroon Moghul’s powerful new memoir, “How to Be a Muslim: An American Story” (Beacon Press), is not a how-to manual for religious practice — far from it. Rather, it’s a searing, intimate portrait of a brilliant but troubled young man struggling with spiritual, psychological and physical challenges while trying to balance a commitment to his religion’s tenets and succeed in a secular society.
He happens to be Muslim, but his story is as universal in appeal as it is particular in its details. At times funny and at times painfully raw, the book reads like a confessional — an extended exercise in self-reflection shared with the public as a cautionary tale.
I have come to know and admire Haroon, 37, since I spent a weekend in New York a couple of years ago with him and about two dozen of his fellow members of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), a project of the Shalom Hartman Institute that invites a select group of American Muslims to explore how Jews understand Judaism, Israel and Jewish identity. The participants, who spend several weeks in Israel as part of the yearlong program, risk harsh criticism, even death threats, from some in the Muslim community who see participation in a program sponsored by Hartman, a Zionist organization, as an act of betrayal.
The book reads like a confessional — an extended exercise in self-reflection shared with the public as a cautionary tale.
Surely the most compelling aspect of Haroon’s biography to Jewish readers is that this outspoken advocate of Palestinian rights, former undergraduate leader of New York University’s Islamic Center and self-described “professional Muslim” who lectures extensively on Islam, is now employed as a fellow in Muslim-Jewish relations at the Hartman Institute, active in Jerusalem and New York in seeking to strengthen Muslim-Jewish relations.
The story of that transition may well be worth a book of its own. But it is mentioned only briefly in this memoir that ends in 2013, at a point where Haroon, who suffers from a bipolar condition of manic highs and bouts of depression that have brought him frighteningly close to suicide, reaches a plateau in his life. By book’s end he has come to realize his mental condition is permanent. But he has gone from a life that “kind of crashed and burned” in his early 30s, as he writes, to a more stable existence and secure sense of himself, including a richer and deeper connection to Islam.
“In a sense,” he told me the other day, “the book is an explanation of who I was at the time and how I came to the point where I could be ready to work for Hartman,” where his job includes teaching rabbis about Islam.
He praised the educational institution for its openness and acceptance in seeking to promote more honest relationships between Muslims and Jews. “It’s been a rich and challenging experience for me because I come from a background where Israel is the enemy, not to be discussed or engaged with.”
Haroon cited a distant relative who, on learning he worked at Hartman, told him he had ruined his life by being associated with Jews, who should be viewed as the enemy. “I wouldn’t be able to shrug off such a comment, let alone challenge it, without having gone through the experiences I did, all those failures and tragedies,” Haroon said, noting that “most Muslims have little experience with Jews” and are subject to hateful, anti-Semitic stereotypes, which he called “naive and toxic assumptions.
“Sometimes I avoid [the criticism] and sometimes I point out the hypocrisy of black-or-white thinking,” he explained.
“Sometimes I avoid [the criticism] and sometimes I point out the hypocrisy of black-or-white thinking.” – Haroon
I shared with Haroon that I cringed on reading several passages in his book that described Israel primarily in the role of occupier without offering historical context. One passage dealt with how on his first trip to Israel — pre-Hartman, during the second intifada — to pray at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, he was delayed and interrogated on arrival at the airport, presumably because he was Muslim. “The Lonely Planet guide to Israel hadn’t bothered to include a section for traveling while indigenous or sharing the religion of the indigenous,” he wrote.
He also described how “when I finally arrived at the Noble Sanctuary [known to Jews as the Temple Mount], there must have been several hundred thousand people there. If not for the occupation, there probably would have been millions.”
Haroon responded to my discomfort by saying he would write differently about Israel today, but he was trying to be true to his thoughts at the time. “I wanted to show who I was and how my world was constructed,” he said. “Working with Hartman now, I have different views.”
That’s not to say he has wavered in his support of the Palestinian cause. His politics haven’t changed; his outlook has broadened and deepened. What’s unique about the MLI program is that the American Muslim participants, who now number more than 100, are able to share and discuss their views without holding back in open discussion with Hartman’s faculty of Jewish educators and thinkers.
Yossi Klein Halevi, the Israeli journalist who co-directs the MLI program, noted that “when you bring together people of faith and good will who have lots of contradictions to work out, extraordinary things happen.”
“When you bring together people of faith and good will who have lots of contradictions to work out, extraordinary things happen.” – Yossi Klein Halevi
Author of the award-winning book, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation” (Harper), Klein Halevi praised Haroon’s book as “an extraordinary inner account of how he tried to navigate a convergence of excruciating dilemmas” — maintaining traditional faith in a secular society and taking pride in a Muslim heritage viewed with distrust, if not hostility, in much of American society.
Klein Halevi said that he and Haroon have developed “a spiritual literary friendship” over the last few years. “He has gone through a very hard relationship with the Jewish people, and I feel privileged and blessed to be working with him,” he said, adding that they share “a feeling of being at once fully an insider and also an outsider.”
Haroon, in turn, says his own writing was inspired by reading Klein Halevi’s first book, “Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist,” about the author’s early attraction to and later repulsion of Rabbi Meir Kahane and the Jewish Defense League.
“Yossi’s book felt like a journey I could find myself in,” Haroon said. “I learned from him to see myself as, above all, a writer — that’s what shapes and compels me — and I hoped to be able to take my particular story and make it relatable to others.”
“Writing and talking about myself so frankly is a bit like scratching at one’s wounds.” – Haroon
Acknowledging the difficulty of revealing his weaknesses, including the anguish of being torn between feelings for his ex-wife and another woman, Haroon says he is hoping the book will challenge his community emotionally and intellectually, and “provide some long overdue conversations” about the inner lives of American Muslims — starting with his own — and not just about terrorism and global wars.
Haroon has already shown spiritual and intellectual courage by participating in the Hartman project and later becoming part of its faculty. He no doubt faces more criticism from his community for going public with his religious and deeply personal struggles and for acknowledging his work with the Jewish community. But he is prepared for it.
“Writing and talking about myself so frankly is a bit like scratching at one’s wounds,” he told me, “but I feel that as a writer I need to put myself out there, even if it hurts.”
He said he has learned that when one is able to speak frankly about an issue that could be seen as shameful, “you take away its power. You don’t allow yourself to be intimidated.”
Why ‘Moderate Muslim’ Has Become An Offensive Phrase
My conversation with Haroon Moghul went beyond his book and biography. Here are his thoughts on several key issues:
On the criticism that American Muslim leaders are reticent to criticize Muslim terrorists:
“Every mainstream Muslim American organization has condemned terrorism so often that many community members protest, asserting that such condemnations make us sound as if we are somehow responsible for these terrorist acts. One of the debates in our community is whether to apologize for actions in your religion’s name when you have nothing to do with them.
“Among the reasons the criticism is not heard sufficiently is that our community lacks the sophistication and the financial resources to project its voice into the mainstream public sphere. Another is that the mainstream media considers Muslim leaders condemning terrorism a non-story.
“In truth, the phrase ‘moderate Muslim’ has become offensive, suggesting that extremists are the norm, and the mainstream become the outliers”
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
“One area where more can be done in a positive way is improving relationships between Jewish and Israeli Palestinians living within the 1967 borders. Greater engagement and empowerment of Palestinian Christians and Muslims could have a real impact on how Israel is seen in the region.
But the larger problem has less to do with Israel and more with the governments in the region whose leadership has been extremely disappointing. They are consumed with sectarian and ethnic conflict, internally and externally.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one of many in the region, but it’s important that the parties address it themselves. A solution to the occupation would strengthen Israel’s borders, which are being threatened by extremist groups.
“I’d like to see elections take place among the Palestinians. You can’t get anywhere if the government is seen as unresponsive. What’s needed is a government with a popular mandate.”
On President Trump:
“My worst fear was that Trump would be authoritarian, but what is happening is actually the opposite. He’s not a strong leader, he’s remarkably weak, fundamentally in over his head. That is causing the state to break down, which is worrisome on many levels.
“Minorities look to the federal government to protect them — on civil rights, immigrant rights, etc. But I’m more worried as an American that the White House is no longer dealing with problems that only a government can address.”