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'How To Be A Muslim' Author On Being A Spokesperson For His Faith

Jul 6, 2017
Originally published on July 6, 2017 6:09 pm

Growing up in New England as a first-generation Pakistani-American, Haroon Moghul was taught that practicing his Islamic faith would make life his better. What he didn't anticipate was how challenging it could be to be Muslim in America.

In 2001, Moghul was the student leader of New York University's Islamic Center when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. Shortly thereafter, he was called upon to be a spokesperson for the Muslim community in New York — a role he describes as both a "civic responsibility" and a "tremendous burden."

"It's really hard," he says. "Being Muslim can be a limiting factor where you're shackled to what people do in the name of Islam in different parts of the world, including here in the United States."

Moghul has continued to advocate and explain Islam since then, but he acknowledges that he has also grappled with the more personal aspects of his faith. His new memoir, How to Be a Muslim, describes his efforts to reconcile his beliefs with those of his parents, as well as his struggle with bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts.


Interview Highlights

On what drove him to help create the Islamic Center at NYU

When I was growing up, mosques were pretty much the reserve of men of a certain professional and ethnic background, of a certain sectarian affiliation. The sermons were often barely in English, hardly comprehensible and usually completely irrelevant to the concerns of the time.

I was deeply dissatisfied by that. And when I got to NYU ... it was the first time I had ever encountered a large group of diverse Muslims, and I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool if all of us could find a place where we'd feel at home, where being Muslim was something that we got to define for ourselves and not have imposed on us from without?" So we set ourselves to the task of building this really cool, this really dynamic and this really fun institution. And I think it took off precisely because a lot of people were invested in their religious identity, but they didn't have a place where they could express it.

On how he became a representative of New York's Muslim community following Sept. 11

I've often felt myself to be torn in half between who I believed I was supposed to be — often through the input of parents and elders and religious authorities — and who I thought I wanted to be, which emerged from within myself.

That cleavage was reproduced in the aftermath of Sept. 11. ... Suddenly there were two parts to me that a lot of people believed were not only incompatible, but mutually hostile — that I was an American and I was a Muslim. And there are a lot of people, and probably an [increasing] number of people, who think that that conjunction is impossible.

But more to the immediate point, when the attack happened, I was in a place in my life where I thought I would leave the Islamic Center behind, because it felt suffocating and I felt a hypocrite and a fraud. And when the attack happened, I was [the] leader of one of the largest Muslim communities in proximity to ground zero, and one of the few [communities] that was able to talk to media because it was conversant in English and composed of people who had grown up here and had the ability to speak to wider American audiences. And suddenly this task of community building and community organizing — which was only ever supposed to be for a university campus — became part of a national, even international, conversation, which I felt like I had to do, and felt completely and totally unprepared for.

On what being a "professional Muslim" means to him

Every time something bad happens you're called upon to apologize, to explain. It means that your entire identity is pegged to events in other parts of the world — usually and almost exclusively negative events — and your entire religious life becomes the articulation of why your community is not a problem or should not be perceived as a problem to wider America.

On how Islam has become more of a political identity than a religious one

The tragedy, I think, of contemporary American Islam is that externally we're defined politically — we're defined as a national security threat, we're defined as the "other" of Western civilization. But internally, we've begun to reflect that rhetoric and we've begun to talk less of ourselves as a spiritual tradition and a religious worldview and more and more as an ethnic community whose boundaries are political. I think that's the tragedy here.

On his bipolar diagnosis

When I dropped out of law school at the age of 23, I was pretty sure that it was the end of my life. I was so raised in the suburban Pakistani milieu that I believed if I didn't become a doctor and I didn't become a lawyer, I literally would have no future. The toll that took on me led me to contemplate for the first time in my life killing myself. And I knew even then that that was abnormal, and I went out to see a family friend, a psychiatrist, spoke to her for a few hours, and she called me back the next day and she said I was bipolar. ...

The diagnosis made it harder because I believed that mental illness was a sign of spiritual failure, and so it only confirmed in me this feeling that I had somehow come up short. ... I thought that what I was going through was either something exclusive to me, or a product of my inability to live up to being Muslim. So when she told me so casually that there was ... a mental illness and a lot of people fell into that category, I didn't know what to do with that. I do know that I pretty much refused it, because I thought that was an excuse, and the real problem was my lack of religiosity.

On a turning point in his faith, when he went to Dubai and heard an imam speak

The way I was taught Islam when I was growing up was a set of practices that you do so that you don't go to hell. There was almost nothing there of the idea of actually transforming yourself or having a personal and intimate relationship with God. And what I began to find in Dubai, including at that mosque, was this idea of spirituality as a practice and as a struggle to reach a different point in your life.

What I found so moving about this imam's prayers was that he very openly and candidly expressed, in beautiful Arabic, his insufficiencies, and I had never encountered that kind of vulnerability in religion. ... He was talking about how he'd come up short, and how time and again he had failed as a Muslim, and I had never experienced that kind of frank, open conversation about spiritual shortcomings. I had always treated religious leaders as people who had somehow figured it out and reached a point where they didn't have any doubt, they didn't have any questions, they didn't have any insufficiencies, and that moment, that night in the mosque ... was transformative. ... It gave me permission to be myself, to accept that just because I don't pray as often as I should doesn't mean I can't have a connection to God or that I can't be Muslim, and it also meant that I had to find a spiritual practice that worked for me.

Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new book "How To Be A Muslim" isn't a how-to book. It's a memoir by my guest Haroon Moghul. And the title is more of a question than an answer. The question of how to be a faithful Muslim as a first-generation American growing up in a world so different from Pakistan, where Moghul's parents emigrated from. When he was a student at NYU, he was a leader of the university's Islamic center. Because of his position, after 9/11, he was often called on as a spokesperson for the Muslim community.

But none of this stopped him from questioning what it meant to be a good Muslim and whether he was capable of being one. He feared that as a spokesperson, he was in over his head. He often felt like a fraud. He was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The book opens with him on his way to the bridge where he intended to jump and take his life. Fortunately, something stopped him at the last minute. Moghul is now a fellow in Jewish-Muslim relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

Haroon Moghul, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've described yourself as having become, in the past, a professional Muslim. What did you mean by that?

HAROON MOGHUL: Professional Muslim is kind of like being a firefighter. Every time something bad happens, you're called upon to apologize, to explain. It means that your entire identity is pegged to events in other parts of the world, usually and almost exclusively negative events. And your entire religious life becomes the articulation of why your community is not a problem or should not be perceived as a problem to wider America. In some senses, I see it as a civic responsibility. But in a lot of senses, it's a tremendous burden. It's been pretty hard.

GROSS: So do you still think of yourself as a professional Muslim?

MOGHUL: My hope is that writing this book is my way of taking that responsibility and going beyond it and becoming someone bigger and better than that because there's so much more to who I want to be as a person and who Muslims want to be. And unfortunately, we're often denied the chance to do that. I actually - I was on a television news program several months ago. I don't remember what exactly was the cause of why I was on but presumably something bad, something to do with terrorism. And I often have trouble asking for things. But this time, I told myself that I would make an ask.

And so when the segment was over, I turned to the anchor of the news program and I said, there's lots of other things I'm interested in. I'm interested in health care, infrastructure, science fiction - I'm a big "Star Trek" fan. I'm interested in fantasy and movies and culture and literature and all these different things. And the anchor looked me dead in the eye and said, yeah, that's great, but we're only ever going to call you on when Muslims do bad things. So...

GROSS: (Laughter) Nice to know.

(LAUGHTER)

MOGHUL: It was good to know. It was helpful. Honesty, I suppose, is to be appreciated.

GROSS: But you also describe a crisis that you were having earlier in your life, that you were a professional Muslim, but you felt like a fraud.

MOGHUL: I grew up in a very religious household and a very conservative household. We were taught and expected to be a certain kind of Muslim, and I never was able to live up to that. And so I had this external feeling of having to be a certain person or at least look like and act like a certain person. And when I found myself in college, I found myself attracted to the idea of a Muslim community and found that I was actually pretty good at building a Muslim community. It was something I enjoyed. It was something that people told me I was doing great work in, while at the same time, my interior spiritual life was sorely wanting.

We've reached a point, I believe, in American Muslim communities, where we have a lot more inclusivity and openness to difference. But at the time I was in college, I don't think it was quite where it is now. And so I felt like I was portraying myself as a certain kind of Muslim in order to accomplish certain objectives when I wasn't that Muslim. And so I felt not just like a fraud, I felt like a hypocrite.

GROSS: What certain kind of Muslim were you portraying yourself as?

MOGHUL: The best answer I can give is an orthodox Muslim, for lack of a better term - someone who prays five times a day, someone who is not dating, someone who is deeply invested in a traditional interpretation of Islam, someone who has no faults or flaws, someone who doesn't question God's actions or purposes in the world - an obedient, typical Muslim worshipper. It's not who I was. I don't think it's who I am.

GROSS: I think it's hard to be - maybe I'm just projecting here - that it's hard to be somebody who's, like, highly educated and intellectual and not question everything.

MOGHUL: I was also a philosophy major in college, so...

GROSS: Oh, forget about it.

(LAUGHTER)

MOGHUL: ...Probably was not the best choice. Or maybe it was my subconscious trying to tell me something. But yeah, I question everything. That was pretty much what I was majoring in...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOGHUL: ...While at the same time, I was acting and pretending like I had never questioned anything.

GROSS: So when you went to NYU, you were really active in the NYU Islamic Center. And you wanted to make it a center that would be a bridge for people. And you write, (reading) we didn't have to make people want to go to the mosque. We just had to build a mosque people wanted to go to.

So what kind of center - what kind of mosque did you envision that as being?

MOGHUL: Mosques can be tremendously lonely, alienating and judgmental places. When I was growing up, mosques were pretty much the reserve of men of a certain professional and ethnic background of a certain sectarian affiliation. The sermons were often barely in English, hardly comprehensible and usually completely irrelevant to the concerns of the time. And I was deeply dissatisfied by that.

And when I got to NYU, which - incidentally, I went to NYU because I didn't get into an Ivy League, which my father still holds over my head. But that's what it's like to grow up Pakistani. But when I got to NYU was the first time I'd ever encountered a large group of diverse Muslims. And I thought to myself, wouldn't it be cool if all of us could find a place where we would feel at home, where being Muslim was something that we got to define for ourselves and not have imposed on us from without? And so we set ourselves to the task of building this really cool, this really dynamic and this really fun institution.

And I think it took off precisely because a lot of people were invested in their religious identity, but they didn't have a place where they could express it. And unfortunately, when I talk to Muslims - and I travel around the country a lot talking to Muslim audiences - it still seems like that's a pretty big problem, that folks don't have a place where they feel better about themselves as Muslims and not worse, which is terrible in the present political climate because you get attacked by many people on the right for being Muslim. And then you go to the mosque, and instead of being uplifted, you feel crushed or humiliated or simply that your community is inadequate.

GROSS: Describe more of the center or the mosque that you created. And should I use those two words interchangeably?

MOGHUL: Sure. I mean, it wasn't an ordinary mosque. It was just the equivalent of a Muslim Students Association, a club for undergrad and graduate students. I should be completely transparent, however. The reason I actually first walked into the Islamic Center is because when I got into NYU, they had a student club fair. And the first club I expressed interest in was the South Asian Students Association. And I went to their first dance party of the year.

I cannot dance. Watching me dance would probably cause you to lose faith in humanity.

(LAUGHTER)

MOGHUL: And so, yeah, I basically went to a dance party and...

GROSS: I've been tested by worse things (laughter), I assure you.

MOGHUL: It's pretty bad.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOGHUL: It's really bad. It's amazing that I can't make my body do anything remotely publicly acceptable to music. And I sat in the corner, and I didn't dance. And no girls talked to me, and I didn't make any friends. So I decided maybe I'll try the Islamic Center. And so I joined the Islamic Center because I couldn't dance, which is kind of probably not the ordinary reason people are expecting.

And we just wanted to build a community. And we needed to find a place to pray, so we set ourselves to raising the funds necessary to build a space large enough for students to come and worship. We wanted to find a way to express and share our identity. So we put on programs; we produced a magazine. It was very typical stuff for any undergraduate student experience, except that it was in a Muslim language, in a Muslim lens, which was unfamiliar to a lot of people.

GROSS: So let me ask you about how sexuality figures into this because one of the turning points in your life, as a boy, was when you were in public school and sex education classes were about to start and your parents sent a letter saying that you needed to be exempted from sex education. And so every time there was a sex education class, you were excused and had to go some someplace else. So everybody knew that you weren't allowed to take it. What was the impact of that on your life as a boy?

MOGHUL: I'm actually still laughing at how absolutely absurd this was. It was my first semester, for lack of a better term, in Somers, Conn. We were in fifth grade. And every student took the sex education class - like, every single one as far as I knew except for me. And not only did I not sit in on the class. I was excused from the class. The teacher would simply call on me and say I could leave now, which is, from a - just a 10-, 11-year-old's point of view, absolutely horrible to be singled out. And then I would go to the library. You can't even make this up. I would go to the library where I was doing a report on the solar system.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOGHUL: So while my classmates studied human sexuality, I was literally drawing Saturn with colored pencils.

GROSS: (Laughter) So - and...

MOGHUL: It's kind of amazing.

GROSS: You make it sound in the book like this was a real turning point in your life. How do you think that influenced your future sexual life?

MOGHUL: I was the only brown kid in my school. I grew up in New England, so I'm not trying to say - I don't want people to misunderstand me. I grew up in a pretty open-minded, very welcoming place. I never encountered any overt hostility. But I was very much the obviously brown kid with the strange name. And then I'm booted out of sex ed, which only added to the taboo of sexuality that I grew up with.

I was raised pretty much to believe that at some point my parents would find me a spouse and that in the meantime, I would have no interest in girls or dating or sexuality. And for my parents to then deprive me of sex ed was just one more way in which sexuality became this extremely abnormal, uncomfortable and even, I would say, almost un-Islamic thing. It was for other people. It wasn't for us.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Haroon Moghul, and his new memoir is called "How To Be A Muslim: An American Story." It's a memoir. It's not a self-help book giving you advice (laughter) on how to be a Muslim. It's about his life as a Muslim. He's now a fellow in Jewish-Muslim relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute. We'll take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Haroon Moghul. He's the author of the new memoir "How To Be A Muslim: An American Story." And of course this is a memoir about your life as a Muslim, as the son of Pakistani immigrant parents in America. You were a leader of the Islamic Center at NYU at the time of the 9/11 attacks. And as you put it in your book, my country had been attacked in my religion's name. So how did that make you feel like you had to change your role as a Muslim who had an active role in the faith community?

MOGHUL: I don't know if this is me or all of us, but I've often felt myself to be torn in half between who I believed I was supposed to be, often through the input of parents and elders and religious authorities, and who I thought I wanted to be, which emerged from within myself. And that cleavage was reproduced in the aftermath of 9/11 - that suddenly there were two parts to me that a lot of people believed were not only incompatible but mutually hostile, that I was an American, and I was a Muslim. And there were a lot of people and probably an increasing number of people who think that that conjunction is impossible.

But more to the immediate point, when the attack happened, I had - I was in a place in my life where I thought I would leave the Islamic Center behind because it felt suffocating, and I felt a hypocrite and a fraud. And when the attack happened, I was leader of one of the largest Muslim communities in proximity to ground zero and one of the few that was able to talk to media because it was conversant in English and composed of people who'd grown up here and had the ability to speak to wider American audiences.

And suddenly this task of community building and community organizing which was only ever supposed to be for a university campus became part of a national and even international conversation, which I felt I had to do and felt completely and totally unprepared for.

GROSS: Let's complicate your story a little bit more. You were diagnosed as bipolar. How old were you when you got the diagnosis?

MOGHUL: I was 23 years old. I had just dropped out of law school. And to give you a sense of how traumatic that was, my father had told me that I was not allowed to get married until I was 35 and I had completed medical school and my residency. And by the time I was 35, I dropped out of two graduate schools, and I was divorced. So I guess my father was right (laughter).

But when I dropped out of law school at the age of 23, I was pretty sure that it was the end of my life. I was so raised in the suburban, Pakistani milieu that I believed that if I didn't become a doctor, I didn't become a lawyer, I literally would have no future. And the toll that took on me led me to contemplate for the first time in my life killing myself. And I knew even then that that was abnormal, and I went out to see a family friend, a psychiatrist, spoke to her for a few hours. And she called me back the next day and said I was bipolar.

GROSS: Did the diagnosis help you understand emotions or behavior that you had found troubling?

MOGHUL: The diagnosis made it harder because I believed that mental illness was a sign of spiritual failure. And so it only confirmed in me this feeling that I had somehow come up short. I thought that what I was going through was either something exclusive to me or a product of my inability to live up to being Muslim.

And so when she told me so casually that there was already a - there was a disease out there, for lack of a better term, a mental illness and that a lot of people fell into that category, I didn't know what to do with that. I do know that I pretty much refused it because I thought that that was an excuse, and the real problem was my lack of religiosity. And so instead of accepting that diagnosis and dealing with it, I ran away from it.

GROSS: Did a psychiatric diagnosis not fit into your understanding of Islam? Was there no room for a psychiatric interpretation?

MOGHUL: I don't know if it's Islam or the culture I grew up in or what it's like to be the child of immigrants, but mental illness was taboo kind of like sexuality. We didn't talk about it. It was a problem for other people in other cultures and other religions. It was not a problem for Muslims. And yeah, I mean I didn't know what to do with it. It's just I mean - she's like, well, you're just bipolar, and that's it. And you can take some medication, and you'll feel better. And I thought that was kind of like cheating or something.

GROSS: But you took the medication, right?

MOGHUL: I took it for a few weeks. I got some side effects. Somehow my parents found out I was taking the medication. This is a problem when you live in a community made of doctors (laughter), right? Everyone...

GROSS: And your doctor was your mother's friend, right?

MOGHUL: Yeah. Although I don't think she was the one who spoke to my mom. I think it was another doctor I went to see. And I mean suffice it to say that conversation was so unpleasant that I got off the meds. And I convinced myself that a change in my external circumstances would change my internal condition and that I could beat this on my own.

GROSS: Wait; wait. The conversation with your parents was so unpleasant?

MOGHUL: Yeah, the conversation about why I was taking these psychiatric medications. I think I was on Lamictal at the time, which is - I think it was a mood stabilizer. I don't even know. And when my mom found out, she called me and asked me why I was taking this medication. And it was a very unpleasant conversation because she implied that I didn't need it and that the diagnosis itself revealed some kind of flaw in me that she was deeply disappointed by.

GROSS: So that kind of confirmed your worst fear that it was really your fault for not being a good enough Muslim.

MOGHUL: That's exactly how to put it. It was my fault. It wasn't a real problem. Or if it was a real problem, it was ultimately down to something I had done or failed to do.

GROSS: So your memoir starts with you on the verge of committing suicide. You're basically walking toward the bridge that you intend to jump from. Was there a last straw for you that got you to that point?

MOGHUL: That was a pretty crappy time in my life. I had - and the irony is I had my dream job. I finally got to a place where I wanted to be professionally, financially, creatively, and my life was falling apart. I had been dating and married to a woman for 12 years, which is pretty much my entire adult life. And we had separated, and we were getting divorced. I responded to this incredibly traumatic experience by running and starting another relationship before I was really ready to, and that predictably enough ended in a pretty nasty breakup. My brother was leaving the country, moving to Dubai for work.

And it was the combination of these three things - plus my health, which had gotten worse and worse - that pushed me literally to the edge. And so only a few months after moving to Washington, D.C., I was ready to end my life.

GROSS: My guest is Haroon Moghul, author of the new memoir "How To Be A Muslim." After we take a short break, we'll talk about why he returned to Islam after considering atheism and Catholicism. And he'll tell us about the sermon that changed his understanding of what it means to be a Muslim. And Ken Tucker will review a new album by Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Haroon Moghul. His new memoir, "How To Be A Muslim," is about all the doubts he's faced about what it means to be a good Muslim as a first-generation American growing up in a world very different from Pakistan, where his parents emigrated from. As a leader of the NYU Islamic Center, he was often called on to be a spokesperson for the Muslim community, but he often felt like a fraud, like he wasn't a good Muslim himself. Complicating things even more, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

You continued to try to figure out, what is the place of Islam in your life? What kind of Muslim are you? What does it mean for you to be a Muslim? What are some of the things along the way that have helped you on your path to understanding what that might be?

MOGHUL: Probably the part of it that's most important is I realized the need to have a spiritual life independent of all these political conversations that we have and independent of the responsibility of being a public, professional Muslim. For me, growing up as a child of Pakistani immigrants, it's hard to explain maybe, but it's almost like your life becomes a checklist of accomplishment.

So you go to college. Then you go to graduate school, preferably medical school. Then you finish your residency. Then you become a doctor completely and entirely with your own practice or at a hospital. It doesn't matter. And but you're ready to get married, and you get married. And you buy a house somewhere in the suburbs, and you have kids. And the process is repeated until the end of time, right? It's like a checklist, right? Like, you just move through life as a series of accomplishments. And then I guess at some point, you just die, right? Like, that's just life.

And whether or not I realized it, I think it had less to do with Islam and more to do with being the child of immigrant parents. I had internalized this idea of checklist life. And so yeah, I wasn't a doctor, but I was pursuing a career as a public intellectual in which there were the same sort of points that I would have to reach in order to make the right kind of progress. And when I was in my early 30s and I walked to that bridge, it's because none of those things had worked out in the way that I thought they would, that I had gotten married, but I didn't have kids, and I was divorced. And my professional life wasn't necessarily moving along as fast as I thought it would.

And so it meant that the story I told myself about why it was alive and what my life was supposed to mean didn't make sense. And it wasn't politics that saved me. It wasn't cultural identity or ethnic identity. It wasn't professional Muslim life that that protected me. It was this connection to God. And it was almost independent of any Muslim community and very deliberately. It was a deeply private, personal connection to God, who was there for me when nothing else was working.

GROSS: You describe a trip to Dubai in which you went to a mosque there and were disappointed that the imam who you'd hoped to hear wasn't there that day. But the person who was was for you incredible. And it sounds like it was a turning point in your religious life. Would you describe to the extent that you can your experience in the mosque that day?

MOGHUL: The way I was taught Islam when I was growing up was a set of practices that you do so that you don't go to hell. There was almost nothing there of the idea of actually transforming yourself or having a personal and intimate relationship with God. And what I began to find in Dubai, including at that mosque, was this idea of spirituality as a practice and as a struggle to reach a different point in your life.

And what I found so moving about this imam's prayers were that he very openly and candidly expressed in beautiful Arabic his insufficiencies. And I had never encountered that kind of vulnerability in religion. He was a celebrity imam, for lack of a better term. And I don't mean that as a putdown. I mean that he was very well-regarded and very well-known. And many Muslims, if they read his name, they'll recognize him. You can find it on YouTube. You can you can find him in lectures and audio recordings and everything you can imagine.

GROSS: Do you want to mention his name?

MOGHUL: And he was up there. His name was Idrees Abkar. And he was talking about how he'd come up short and how time and again he'd failed as a Muslim. And I had never experienced that kind of frank, open conversation about spiritual shortcomings. I had always treated religious leaders as people who had somehow figured it out and reached a point where they didn't have any doubt; they didn't have any questions; they didn't have any insufficiencies. And that moment, that night in the mosque in Ramadan - I was in a neighborhood of Dubai called Rashidiya - was transformative.

GROSS: You know, we were talking about, like, finding a way of being Muslim that speaks to you as an American living in the 21st century. When you were younger, you flirted with atheism, with Catholicism. You looked into other religions as well. As somebody who questions everything, why were you a bad atheist when you tried being an atheist?

MOGHUL: Can you be a bad atheist?

GROSS: It sounds like you were.

MOGHUL: I was a fraudulent atheist. I invented an entirely new category. I really just wanted to have a girlfriend. That's pretty much what it came down to. And I wanted to go to parties, and I wanted to have fun. And Islam was kind of like this straitjacket. So I decided that if I didn't believe in God, that I - then I would be free to do whatever I wanted. So my atheism was a strategic, utilitarian atheism, that I moved into a space where there was no God in order to live the kind of life I wanted to.

But it was never out of conviction. And for me personally, I've never been able to believe in the idea of a universe that does not have a creator. And so I - it felt inauthentic. And so it was more of a stopgap phase. And then I got really interested in other religions because I thought maybe the problem isn't Islam. Maybe the problem is Islam, not religion. So I look to Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism. I looked into different sects of Protestantism. I actually even looked at Zoroastrianism. I was a pretty eclectic spiritual experience.

GROSS: But you returned to Islam.

MOGHUL: I did. I did principally because I felt like through Islam, I could bring together these religious traditions I was exploring. And so growing up in a very Christian environment, I found the idea of Jesus and the figure of Jesus to be deeply moving. And I ended up in Saudi Arabia, which is never where you want to end up incidentally. But I ended up in Saudi Arabia.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOGHUL: It's just - it's not like, oh, yeah, I went there, you know, just because it was, like, a great place to be. I went there on a pilgrimage. My brother invited me. This was back in 1998 when I'd just finished high school. And I remember standing outside the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina this scorchingly hot day. It was 123 degrees, just feels like the sun is punching you in the face. And I had this moment - I guess you could call it an epiphany - that if I became a Christian, I would have to reject Muhammad. But if I stayed a Muslim, I could keep Jesus because in the Muslim tradition, Jesus is the Messiah, and so he's a very, very significant figure in our religious and spiritual life.

And so Islam allowed me - and this was weird at the time. Islam allowed me to stitch together these different parts of my life. But it wasn't like a hooray-I'm-Muslim moment. It was more like, damn, I'm still Muslim. And...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOGHUL: So, like, I can't - no matter how hard I try, I cannot get out of this space. But it actually opened the door to what we were talking about earlier, which was helping to build the Islamic Center at NYU because I realized I wanted to be Muslim, and I wanted to figure out a way to do that on my own terms.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Haroon Moghul. And he is the author of a new memoir called "How To Be A Muslim: An American Story." He's also a fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Haroon Moghul. He's the author of the new memoir "How To Be A Muslim: An American Story." He helped build the NYU Islamic Center when he was a student there. And this was about the time of 9/11.

So one of your titles now is that you're a fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute. This is an institute that had a big impact on your life because you were asked to participate in a group of Muslim leaders going to Israel to learn more about Israel and Jewish life and Zionism. And you took a lot of heat within the Muslim community for participating in this trip. Would you tell us more about the trip and why you decided to go and why it was so controversial?

MOGHUL: I was living in Dubai at the time. I received the invitation through a very good friend of mine, and he said, would you like to go to Israel to study Judaism and Zionism? And I said, not particularly (laughter). And he pushed me on it, and he said, it's a really powerful program; it's a really impactful program; you should think about it.

And finally I said I think out of curiosity - it was when the Arab Spring was first starting to take a turn for the worse. I said to myself, I actually don't know any Israelis, and I don't really know anything about Israel beyond what I've read in books. I'd visited in 2001 for a few days. But I was 21 years old, and it wasn't like I was deeply immersed in any kind of experience. So I said, yeah, like, let me try it out; let me see what it's like.

And I thought it would be, like, a conference you go to. Maybe, you know, you talk to some folks for a couple weeks. You get to learn some stuff, and then you walk away. You move on. And instead, it became this incredibly impactful experience I think because the Hartman Institute is an educational institution that brings together people who take religious identity seriously and who take the modern world seriously. And I felt a kind of intellectual and spiritual kinship that I never imagined I would feel with people from a different religious tradition.

And what was perhaps most remarkable of the whole experience is that we had very different political views. I mean they're a Zionist, and I'm not. And I had always and continue to identify as a pro-Palestinian Muslim who sees in the Palestinian story resonances religiously, ethnically, politically, culturally. In many ways, it is a story of a colonized population, and I come from a colonized population. And so to then be in conversation with people who didn't expect you to agree and actually embrace disagreement and difference was really moving enough that I went from being a participant in the program to working for the Hartman Institute.

GROSS: So does this program also include taking Jewish people to Gaza?

MOGHUL: So that's been one of the harshest criticisms of the program, is that it's a one-sided program. And it is very deliberately a one-sided program in part because as I see it, a Jewish-Israeli institution is not the place where you would want to learn the Palestinian narrative, that you would want to learn from Palestinians themselves.

One thing I do for Hartman, however, is I do teach courses on Islam and the Muslim world and share my perspective and Muslim and Palestinian perspectives on the conflict, again, not because I want my audience to necessarily agree with everything I'm saying but simply to develop an appreciation for a narrative they may have never encountered. And I say that as someone who's studied the region academically, who's traveled throughout the region and feels deeply invested in the conflict.

Although, I am not - as you pointed out, I'm not Palestinian. I'm not Arab. But I grew up, again, in a Pakistani household where the Palestinian cause was seen as a parallel to and part of the very same cause that my parents embraced, which was this liberation and upliftment of Muslim peoples.

GROSS: So your mother was a doctor, and she was - she went to med school in Pakistan...

MOGHUL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And was one of the few women of her generation to go to med school. So I'm wondering where your mother stood on the issue of, like, women's rights and women's equality.

MOGHUL: My mom's family probably explodes a lot of assumptions people have about Muslims and Islam. So my mother's family actually - and the reason I give you the long history is to give you a sense of the background I grew up in. They moved from Iraq to South Asia near Delhi in India in the 13th century. So they were Arabs at one point, and they arrived in India. And there are Wikipedia entries of my ancestors going back to the 16th century. I come from the Muslim equivalent of a rabbinic family. So pretty much everyone from my grandfather on backwards, as far as we can tell, was a religious scholar. My grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather - again, that's as far back as I know - were fluent in Arabic, in Persian, were avid consumers of literature and inhabited this kind of Muslim humanism that well predates the West.

And my grandfather had seven daughters, and he raised all of them to be educated, remarkably strong and independent women. I was spared, fortunately, the common patriarchal stance of religion. Actually, my mother's family is full of strong women. All of them are accomplished. Some of them are authors. Some of them are doctors. But it's a remarkable family to be a part of. And so I - you know, I look at a lot of the kind of parochial Islam that's so prominent in the world as not just alien to my personal experience but not really consistent with Islam as I was raised to understand it.

GROSS: Do you ever feel like you're so - it's so important for you to challenge the stereotypes that some Americans have of Islam - the stereotype of like, you know, terrorism - that in order to challenge those stereotypes, does that make it difficult for you to also challenge the parts of Islam that you don't like, you know, the dictators, ISIS?

MOGHUL: It is - it's like walking a tightrope. How do you be publicly critical of a community and a religion that you love? And at a time when those identities are under attack, what does it mean to be sincerely critical of your own community? And that's not easy. And I experienced that in my work with the Shalom Hartman Institute where, you know, a number of my critics were unable to understand that I was not endorsing a particular narrative. I was simply embracing the idea of being part of a conversation with people who are different from myself with the hope that something, some deeper appreciation and respect and progress would grow out of those conversations. But it is hard because you feel like you're being hit on both sides.

I remember I was - the first time I spoke on a panel in Jerusalem, the first comment I got after the panel was, I didn't know Muslims could be funny, which is kind of amazing, since, like, you think there's, like, 1 and a half billion people who like, never tell jokes (laughter) or, like, find nothing amusing. It's a little - it's weird. And then the second comment was by a gentleman who expressed surprise and said, I thought you were going to be Hamas. My immediate reaction was like, you thought the Shalom Hartman Institute was inviting Hamas to speak to you?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOGHUL: It's a little bit weird, right? Like, I don't know if that reflects on me or that reflects on the institute or on you. I'm not really sure who should be more embarrassed at this moment. But that's the kind of reaction I get in a lot of places. And even on the book tour, you still get people who are - who, I mean - literally, I think not too long ago, a person said to me, you're really fun to listen to; you should be a Christian.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOGHUL: I was like, so that's...

GROSS: What a strange thing to say.

MOGHUL: (Laughter) So it's like, well, you know, if you're interesting, why would you be in such a boring religion? And it was like, thanks I think.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOGHUL: But he bought the book, so it's OK. Like, I don't - as long as you buy my book, I will take anything. I'll accept it.

GROSS: (Laughter) Haroon Moghul, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MOGHUL: Thank you.

GROSS: Haroon Moghul's new memoir is called "How To Be A Muslim." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review a new album by Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman. This is FRESH AIR.

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