In my last post, I addressed the deeply personal accounts of Haroon Moghul’s self- and religious exploration in his memoir How to be a Muslim: An American Story. This post will broaden that reading to consider an October 2017 interview with Moghul at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.
The interview echoes themes relevant to current global crises which implicate religion including how religious rhetoric circulates to support extremist violence and Islamophobia. Exploring how the events of 9/11 intertwine with such crises adds depth to understanding Moghul’s individual experience.
Moghul presents an inner duality that is highlighted in the aftermath of 9/11: he is called upon to serve as a leader for the Islamic Center for which he feels pride: “I helped build a growing community, defended it at its most vulnerable – when our city, our country, our sense of ourselves, and even my religion were attacked” (125). Yet, at the same time he expresses guilt for not being the Muslim he thought he “should be.”
The title of Moghul’s text makes explicit a nuanced sense of self while making implicit the difficulty in straddling being both Muslim and American – from individual, social, cultural, religious, and political perspectives. The duality emerges in tension and stress immediately after 9/11: Moghul interprets his professor’s response after letting all but the Muslim and Middle Eastern students leave the room after the planes hit the towers; “He shook his head. He was afraid. Not just because our nation had been attacked but by whom” (116). The professor tells them, “Be careful as you make plans to find your way home, travel in groups, accept that it will never be September 10th again” (116).
Unfortunately, racism and threats of violence to Muslim Americans after 9/11 continue to make an impact upon these communities. According to new data released by the FBI in November, hate crimes due to race, ethnicity, and religion have increased this year (see also The Washington Post). The reality of anti-Muslim sentiments in circulation becomes apparent on October 4th, 2017 – 16 years after 9/11. Before Moghul’s interview, Alice Greenwald – President and Chief Executive Officer of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum – approaches the podium to introduce the guest. Following her words of introduction, she makes a statement related to Moghul’s invitation to speak there.
“I feel compelled to address some, who have expressed publicly, that this program is inappropriate for this institution. I want to state unequivocally, that this program reflects the commitment and the mission of the Memorial and the Museum to document and increase understanding of the ongoing repercussions of the 9/11 attacks. One particularly sensitive subject is the impact the attacks have had on Muslim Americans.” She continues to detail how exhibitions in the Museum document and attest to such impacts, mentioning an important photo in the Museum’s historical exhibition taken September 12, 2001: In this image, Hassan Awday, a Yemeni born American, stares from behind a plate glass window of his Marathon gas station in Gary, Indiana. The bullet proof glass evidences some of the 21 shots fired by a high-powered rifle on September 12, 2001 in what authorities labeled hate crime.
Greenwald’s assertion, her naming of a problem that increasingly confronts American – and global – society, turns us towards the unjust dilemma of a young man raised as a Muslim in America. A haunting statement in Moghul’s text brings this point to bear: “MY COUNTRY HAS BEEN ATTACKED. In my religion’s name” (119).
Themes apparent in Greenwald’s opening words surface again in a question from the audience related to the religious strife in Ireland between Irish Catholics and Protestants. The audience member points out that these groups share a commonality in religion – Christianity – and while their differences affect peace in Ireland, upon immigration to the US, such differences fail to elicit the same level of discord. The query points to how religious dissidence and violence among the Irish becomes less enacted upon amidst immigration to the US but the same alignment does not happen for the Muslim who immigrates here. Why? Because Christianity lies at the base of American culture? Because Muslims are less white than the Irish? Or because the correlation media and other sources make between extremist violence and Islam fosters fear? Moghul answers asserting that Muslims have not exposed their own stories, relaying who they are. He also claims that that the media focuses on the lowest common denominator inspiring outrage to feed an American public more interested in conflict than in mediation. He mentions a Washington Post piece by columnist David Von Drehle entitled, “Americans are addicted to outrage,” holding responsible what he labels a media culture that intends to make people angry, which “fans the flames rather than educate, inform, and sustain dialogue.”
Moghul advocates a response that conveys a style of leadership that is the opposite of anger and stridency (what he sees as characteristic of the current administration): I would interpret this as a posture of calmness – what an analyst might call a state of internal regulation – which facilitates learning. He presses on education, alluding many times in both his manuscript and his interview that great varieties can be found among Islamic practice and belief. Part of his mission is to emphasize and celebrate difference. This point comes to bear in the text when Moghul asserts, “Muslimness [does] not imply sameness” (143). Therefore, overgeneralizing is not only unjust but also inaccurate. Moghul’s posture of calmness amidst the strife that the media seems inclined to elicit is a good one. It offers a method of effectively combatting the fear that can so easily be evoked when the erroneous connection is made between Muslimness and extremist violence. Muslimness does not constitute sameness in any case.
Stephanie N. Arel is an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the September 11 Memorial and Museum and a visiting researcher at New York University. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). Her work revolves around the interplay of psychology and religion to inform an evaluation of trauma and its impact on human dignity.