“How to Be a Muslim: An American Story” encourages readers to embrace their religion, culture


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To discover and embrace your identity is tough enough, but double that with finding your footing in a religion and culture that society deems dangerous and inhumane. That is the predicament Haroon Moghul decided to tackle in his book, “How to Be a Muslim: An American Story.

On the cover is a man on a bridge, presumably Moghul himself. How and why he’s on the bridge makes sense at the end of the book. It doesn’t have a fluffy start, dramatic middle and happy ending; instead, the reader dives straight into Moghul’s life with a dreary beginning and eventual resolution.

“There’s this philosophy running through Hartman of taking the world seriously as in secular reality and then taking one’s religious and ethnic identity seriously and the tension that sometimes is caused by that,” he said in a Shalom Hartman Institute interview about the book’s purpose.

Moghul is a liberal academic and commentator on Islam and public affairs. He’s worked alongside New York University’s Islamic Center as student leader even during the Sept. 11 attacks, one of the most difficult and dangerous times for American Muslims, as explained in the book.

Growing up in a Pakistani Muslim household, Moghul found it hard to mold his Islamic upbringing with the wavering opinions of the outside world. The media often associated just his dress code with angry terrorists targeting innocent people. To make matters worse, he had trouble finding his own footing; something about the traditions and regulations (i.e. praying five times a day, fasting, etc.) didn’t sit with him, and he was struggling to get into a respectable career.

Out of frustration, he goes “on strike” with his faith and commits to everything he wasn’t allowed to do or was discouraged from. This is where the true Moghul lies and all his dirty laundry gets aired so the reader can get an inside look on what he internalizes as a “real Muslim.” He also falls into a pit of denial and depression.

“I was diagnosed with bipolar when I was 23 years old,” he said. “When I first received the diagnosis, I had in my head that this was a problem for other people, I also believe that it was evidence of some kind of spiritual defect, insufficient or incomplete religiosity — and I know a lot of people of faith who internalize that or have that tendency and it wasn’t to me, like, well you’re far from God so that’s why you must [have] this [or] that problem, and it’s not really a medical problem or a psychiatric condition, it’s a spiritual shortcoming that’s manifesting itself in secular language.”

What makes Moghul’s story so unique is his willingness to bare it all; from losing his grip on faith, himself and family to the grueling search for his purpose and value. Not surprisingly, it speaks to the millions of other Muslims in America. At a time when Muslims  are subject to verbal and even physical abuse for their belief, Moghul’s story offers a unique perspective.

He offers a shoulder to lean on and an olive branch to those who may not be able to relate to those issues, which bumps the book’s educational and political value (many history lessons and references made throughout).

His light-hearted tone and pessimistic sense of humor will have you laughing and crying. His story may not be the answer to discrimination and fear of Islam, or the aftermath of 9/11, or how to overcome bipolar but that is beside the point. Moghul wants readers to accept their faults, embrace them, fix them if you need to, believe in yourself and trust in your beliefs, and always keep an eye on the finish line.

“We either only apologize, or never apologize,” he wrote in the book. “We are spineless and gutless, or harshness and darkness.”