Stranded in Between: An American and a Muslim

My religion and my country are implicated in each other’s tragedies: As if a part of my body itself were broken by another part of itself and I can only watch.

Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul
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The skyline of Montreal seen from the Jacques Cartier Bridge, Canada.Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Haroon Moghul
Haroon Moghul

From as far back as I can remember, I have been restless. Dissatisfied. Desperate to move. A Bedouin, maybe. Even as I was in one place, I had to be in another. Until Québec.

A driver’s license was my chance to finally be faithful to myself. My parents’ salaries provided the vehicle. An alliance with the House of Saud ensured a fantastic price for gasoline. Over ribbons of pockmarked asphalt, looking very much like my pimpled, cratered teenaged skin, I raced north past Springfield, Massachusetts, and the last two skyscrapers in America. Soon the houses grew few and far between, the forests thick and haunted, the hills worn down and wizened. It would not be fantastical to say I feared I’d fall off the end of the world. Nor dishonest to say I hoped I might. 

Hours more would pass, well into darkness. I could have unintentionally entered another planet. But then, abruptly, suddenly – this was before the war on terror, of course, when our politicians had the gall to call for walls to come down – Montréal. Like ending in Rivendell long after one thought all hope had been lost. I might as well have been encountering Elves. They spoke French here, which I did not. They were beautiful, sophisticated, otherworldly, free. None of these were me. Still farther was the Ville of Québec, an apparent castle and promontory, Chute-Montmorency, the Île d’Orléans and then the end of the world. 

I wanted to disappear to there. But I did not listen to me, and now it is too late.

Québec is gone.

Though I chose New York for college, this was false bravado. Having come all the way to the capital of the world, I made the bold, uncompromising decision to study – wait for it – not even me, but who other people wanted me to be. For my foreign language requirement, I chose Arabic. (There was no Urdu, but I decided Arabic was closer to me than Hindi.) Though I briefly flirted with the idea of joining the South Asian cultural scene, largely to pretend that I could flirt with South Asian women, membership in the Islamic Center was as unoriginal as it was inevitable. For my first summer, I continued Arabic studies in Vermont, voyaged to Montréal for a weekend, and then returned to Greenwich Village still very much the same.

But when I’d gone as far as I could in the college’s Arabic program, I headed to Egypt where, only 21 years old, I saw myself for the first time. In the sentence of my life, Cairo was the semi-colon. Rather than spend my time studying with venerable teachers in ancient seminaries, or genuflecting in supererogatory prayer, I spent my free time in the Oriental outposts of Western franchises. That, or smoke shisha, or flirt with Egyptian girls which, also, I was not very good at. I loathed what I learned about myself even as I was incapable of fighting very hard against it. (I suspect now I never really was that interested in trying.) It was not that I disdained Islam, but that what was on offer of it had not sufficed. Though I dropped in on mosques, and not without some enthusiasm and thereafter some serenity, inevitably I would move in another, apparently incompatible direction. 

Not away from being Muslim, which I could hardly imagine.

From having to make the choice. 

From the demands of an invisible, omnipresent omniscience.

Years before, after all, I had tried to convince myself Allah did not exist. My immediate response to this conclusion was to flinch. I was waiting for He who did not exist to strike me down.

My disinterest in the embodiment of standard, Sunni orthodoxy saddened me. I contrasted myself to my upbringing, to my idols, to my role models, and found myself wanting. I began to feel, for the first time in my life, that I required another kind of identity, an alternative modernity, one that had the added disadvantage of not actually existing anywhere. So either I contribute to the construction of it, or I opt out altogether. Not from religion, but from places where the religion came from outside of me, as opposed to grew organically from within me.

Had I had the chance to do so, I may have done the second. Gone back to America. Dropped one major, added another. But then the decision was made for me. The Prophet Muhammad said that a time would come when holding onto Islam would be like holding onto hot coals. I used to think: Who burns himself purposefully? The answer: The one who is made to hold on.

I came back to America. I resumed college. A few days later, the towers were knocked down.

Terrorists killed thousands. We began a war that has killed hundreds of thousands more, in an enormity so obvious in retrospect that we hide behind our culpability by calling it a mistake. The oops that is still unfolding. The region that hasn’t even finished unraveling.  When I am honest about the condition of the Muslim world, about my religion’s and my country’s implications in each other’s tragedies, their tensions with and to each other, I am often overcome by emotions so powerful I can hardly cope. I feel myself bonded to people occupied, driven from their homes, suffocated under military rule, who have endured decades of misery and strife, even as I know another part of me is attacked, too, terrorized too, traumatized too. It is not the appreciation of a distant injustice. It as if a part of my body itself were broken by another part of itself and I just watch. 

When I’d started college, I worked with like-minded students to build another kind of Muslim students’ club, something better, wider, gentler, stronger. It took me years to realize that my desires to be more Muslim and my subsequent impulses to run away from Islam were not contradictory. What brought me into the mosque was not different from what teased me out of it. Only a madman would set himself the task of repairing a house whose inhabitants seem intent on murdering themselves, condemned to a property that more and more believe should have been condemned ages ago. 

Unfortunately for me, I only made this connection later, far too late, when there can be no public escape from the private burdens of identity. That is the purpose of terror: To build walls, to force us to stop where we are, to prevent us from becoming anything but who we are at one moment in time. That is the end of occupation, invasion, colonialism: To allow oneself to go anywhere, to be anything, at the expense of another people’s freedom. To be is to move. Now, though, I must stand still, or I am made to stand still. To raise my arms. To prove I am not a threat.

Many of us thought, during the Bush years, that perhaps the world would go back to the way it was before, that this was an interregnum at most, that September 11 was a vile action which would be responded to with intelligence, courage and foresight. Now, though, I suspect we came of age in the twilight of empire, where men more murderous than Al-Qaida have mastered the social media cycle, who know their smartphones better than they know their Koran, who are the detritus of a pulverized region, the dead pieces of our religion resurrected with Frankensteinian effect. 

It is impossible to escape.Religion is not only belief, after all: The TSA has converted more people to Islam than any modern dervish.

We have to believe there is a better world around the corner. 

Even if we know we may never see it. 

At least I know now what attracted me to the Québécois, to their country, in my youth. (I do not know if I should appreciate the insight, or if instead it will burn through me with a violent resentment.) When I was still coming together as a person, those who spoke for God compelled me, but they also contained me. I could hear them better than I could hear myself. In my defense, though I did not feel fully part of their world, there existed no other world I could imagine being a part of. Enter French Canada, which was equal parts my parents and my peers, even as it was neither my parents nor my peers. The Québécois were after all Western like I was, though I was too dense to know it. They were descendants of defeated people, like many Muslims are. They were a deep south in the frozen north, except they did not fight for the right to be evil, but to be left alone.

To escape the Anglophone arc of history, which is long. And conclusive. Modernity’s deceitfulness was obvious to them, and to me, even as my high school peers were oblivious to it then. Look at their blue-and-white flag with its four fleur-de-lis; the French themselves have abandoned it – these people are orphaned. Look at their license plate with its ominous nostalgia:je me souviens.Not only that we remember, it laments, but that you shouldn't forget that we remember, it threatens.Who is this they address with it – this white man’s burden, this hierarchy of civilizations, this telos of all things, this Fukuyaman assumption, the deaf confidence of white Anglo-Saxon entitlement, still reigning now, though the hour of hegemony grows late? I wanted to drive a car with that vengefulness assigned to me. But it is too late.

Today I am compelled by the world. I am demanded to answer for my faith. Omnipresent God has been secularized into omnipresent surveillance, not just by governments, but the vastness of our culture, the need to justify my identity, answer for it, or be limited by it. There is no escaping Islam anywhere you go. Not Islam as belief, but Islam as civilization, as threat, as peril, as crime, as guilt, as sin. Where can you go, after all, where you do not have to apologize for yourself? Certainly not to the Québec that has embraced France's Islamophobia. 

When I think of Québec now, therefore, it isas a dream, a place whereI could have turned into that person the world will no longer permit me to, where I can be neither American nor Muslim, a relief considering the impositions both make on those of us who are stranded in between.This isn't Stockholm syndrome. It's frustration from futilely pulling at the bars. Sometimes I sit down, close my eyes, and think back to what could've been. 

I see myselfin a café,fadedand wood-paneled, somewhere in the towns north of the St. Lawrencedelta, or on the shore of Gaspé. I’mwarmed by a strong fire I can feel, though cannot find. There are singles and couples beside me, but none have yet spoken to me, and I prefer this. I see them only fuzzily, and make out snatches of mostly indecipherable conversations against the howl of a snowstorm outside, a blizzard so thick that God Himself cannot see through. I will write about worlds that don’t exist, places that can be reached only with legendary difficulty. I have beside me a cup whose contents I should not be drinking, in my hands a pen that has not yet been tried, and before me a notebook as open as the world was supposed to be.

Haroon Moghul is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. He is a Director at Avenue M, a new media company. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul