“How to Be a Muslim: An American Story,” by Haroon Moghul, Beacon Press, 256 pp., $17
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American Muslims are having a moment. Hasan Minhaj, the first Muslim to host the White House Correspondents’ Association, marveled, “Who would’ve thought with everything going on in the country right now, that a Muslim would be standing on this stage?” Well, despite—or perhaps because of—Trump’s anti-Muslim fear mongering, Muslims have entered the American cultural and political mainstream.
The second season of Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None”; Keith Ellison’s underdog bid to chair the Democratic National Committee; Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour’s chairing the Women’s March—all these signify a newfound Muslim confidence and visibility in American culture. The younger generation has gone a step further, comfortably debating and even laughing about its parents’ taboos, as when, in “Master of None,” Ansari’s character pretends to be strictly observant for his family, but then skips out on Eid prayers to bring his young cousin to a pork festival.
In moving toward the center of American culture, as well as in the attendant inter-generational struggles over identity and assimilation, second- and third-generation American Muslims are actually recapitulating familiar American Jewish stories. Nowhere is this parallel clearer than in Haroon Moghul’s new memoir, “How to Be a Muslim: An American Story.”
To be sure, Moghul, a Haaretz contributor, is an unusually “Jewish” Muslim. He works for the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish think-tank (at which, I should divulge, I studied briefly), which hosts a Muslim Leadership Initiative. Even as an undergraduate at New York University, when he built a welcoming, modern, pluralist Muslim community, he self-consciously copied the model of a campus Hillel (“I’d visited the Jewish students’ organizations, their facilities, their events” he writes, “and wondered: Why don’t we have anything like this?”) But beyond those chosen affinities, Moghul’s second-generation struggles with his identity will be remarkably familiar to American Jews.
Moghul was born and raised in a small Massachusetts town by Pakistani immigrant parents, devout Muslims and devoutly ambitious doctors. Expected both to achieve bourgeois American success and to continue the family’s “unbroken fourteen-hundred-year-old” tradition of Muslim leadership, the young Moghul was more interested in Green Day and girls.
Though shyer and less vulgarly libidinous than Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, Moghul shares that fictional character’s compulsive urge to divulge his youthful erotic misfires, as well as his attraction to non-Muslim (in Jewish terms, “gentile”) women who promise American normalcy. Meanwhile, he wrestles with the intense discipline of an Islam he only half believes in, succumbing to the temptations of beer and cheeseburgers. Again, Moghul is retracing the steps of Portnoy, who was similarly seduced by non-kosher chazerai (a “greasy bacon double cheeseburger” about which Moghul writes—channeling Portnoy’s mother—“the digestion of which was its own punishment.”)
From Massachusetts, Moghul went to NYU, where he helped create an Islamic student community, one of the first of its size and dynamism at an American university. Earlier campus Muslim communities had been led by older, male, foreign-trained imams whose conservative Islam did not appeal to a younger, mixed-gender and liberal crowd. Moghul and his friends encouraged women leadership, crafted a logo and a tagline (“what community should feel like”) and let laypeople teach and speak.
As an up-and-coming Muslim leader in New York after the September 11 attacks, he was interviewed widely and became a public figure. The intense anti-Muslim backlash and equally intense policing of Muslim communities that followed the attacks politicized many American Muslims. (In interviews, Sarsour also traces her advocacy to the aftermath of 9/11.) By his early thirties, Moghul was a sought-after speaker and writer on American Islam: “To anyone who knew me from afar,” he writes, “my life was going splendidly.”
And yet the memoir opens with his attempted suicide. Recently divorced, he was reeling from his mother’s death and struggling with bipolar disorder. But in the memoir’s telling, he was also afflicted by spiritual inauthenticity. Although Islam was his life’s work, he felt it was “a straitjacket into which I forced myself,” an imposing, unyielding system of discipline and obedience.
The memoir’s final section traces his course of therapy and an extended trip to Dubai to recuperate psychologically and religiously. Meeting with famous imams (core takeaway: “You have to love yourself”) and listening to devotional Muslim music, he gradually acquired a more emotional, individual religiosity. Gradually, Islam became “a grammar through which I vowed to write my own stories.”
For some Jewish readers, his journey will parallel strikingly the mid-’70s baal teshuva movement, in which liberal American Jews used Carlebach music and Israel tourism to construct an individually fulfilling version of what had seemed an alienating, overly cerebral tradition. Indeed, both Moghul and the baalei teshuva were reenacting a Christian confessional memoir. In such memoirs, a sinner in the hands of an angry God is reborn through the gift of Christ’s love. Their life narrative thus recapitulates the transition from Old Testament justice to Christian love.
The genre, though as old as St. Augustine, has a particular appeal for Americans, perhaps because it privileges acquired, individual faith over inherited, collective tradition. “Amazing Grace,” for instance, though written by an Englishman, achieved its greatest success in America, where it is a spiritual anthem: “I once was lost, but now am found T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear / And Grace, my fears relieved.” Even when they may not know it, American memoirists are constantly rewriting this Christian story. Moghul and the Carlebach hippies, in their turning from head to heart, from hard law to free-flowing love, are writing their own confessional memoirs.
The familiarity of Moghul’s search for identity suggests how thoroughly his is indeed “an American story.” The memoir is most interesting as an index of Muslim American acculturation: his love of Green Day and JNCO jeans, as well as his attempt to craft a more liberal, modern Islam. As a memoir, it is a mixed bag. Moghul has the speaker’s gift for amusing, tangential anecdotes told in a jokey tone, but what entertains a crowd bored this reader (stories about his school friends, for instance, are bogged down by inane details about their sports preferences or other random trivia).
He also loves both run-ons and sentence fragments, making the reading taxing. More broadly, the story lacks focus, sharing long anecdotes: a portentous dream sequence in Cordoba could have been cut without losing much, and any number of other stories do not serve a broader story-line. Similarly, the memoir dwells at painful length on Moghul’s romantic struggles. Sometimes, these do indeed tell us what it is to be a Muslim (man) in America, as when Moghul records his shock at discovering that his high-school sweetheart’s Catholic parents do not mind that he is a Muslim.
But the weight of details (the college crush to whom he sent flowers not realizing she had a boyfriend, the post-divorce fling with a depressive co-dependent, the high-school first kiss, etc.) sometimes makes you wonder whether every woman Moghul has ever been attracted to made it into the memoir. Further, in an opaque, awkwardly written passage late in the book, Moghul says he was sexually harassed as a child and that the incident might have been formative, but then leaves things vague and unexplained. The embarrassed half-disclosure and the copious over-sharing suggest Moghul may have confused the writer’s desk for the therapist’s couch.
Nonetheless, immigrant Muslims and their children’s acculturation into American society is worth thinking about. Though American multiculturalism seems embattled and fragile, particularly after Trump’s election, Moghul’s memoir is a testament to its vitality. “How to Be a Muslim in France” would be a darker, more despairing book: There are no headscarf bans in America, nor any massive slums full of unemployed Muslim men.
The book is also a wake-up call to those portions of the American (and Jewish) media that have long taken Muslims as objects to be spoken about, rather than people to talk with. Think of how often a Fox, or even CNN, debate about Israel features two Jews arguing with each other—and, until the last few years, how rarely a Muslim voice intruded.
Writers like Moghul, whose views are predictably pro-Palestinian, though he doesn’t dwell on the point, suggest that that marginalization cannot last. Indeed, Sarsour, for instance, has proved largely impervious to the usual accusations of anti-Semitism. That reflects in part how unimpeachably comfortable she feels in progressive American culture. Sarsour speaks its language fluently: She knows that the up-to-date acronym is “LGBTQIA,” and her favorite word is “community.” Moreover, her accent is recognizably Brooklyn (indeed, she sounds Jewish to me). Although she supports BDS, Palestinian politics are secondary to her work advocating for and serving American Muslims.
Right-wing Jews have long been worrying that American Jews’ assimilation will undermine their support for Israel. Now they also have to worry about assimilated American Muslims. Despite the recent eruption of Trump-inspired Islamophobia, American Islam is likely to shift our conversations about international affairs (and not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), immigration and religion in the public sphere. We should pay attention to Moghul, because he is the future of America.