By: Hyacinth Mascarenhas
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Haroon Moghul is a man of religious thought, foreign policy and history. His 2006 novel, “The Order of Light,” mentions the story of a young Muslim who lights himself on fire to protest the authoritarian situation in the Middle East providing an uncanny prediction of events leading up to the Arab Spring.
In addition to being the Association Editor and columnist at Religion Dispatches, his writing has also been featured on Foreign Policy, al-Jazeera, and the Huffington Post.
He holds an M.A. in Middle East and South Asian Studies from Columbia University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Columbia University’s Department of Middle East, South Asian and African Studies. We got a chance to speak with him about his new predictions and insight into the political climate in the Middle East.
Elan: You’re the executive director of the Maydan Institute. Tell us about that.
Haroon Moghul: “Maydan” is Arabic (among other languages) for a square, as in a public square—I wanted to teach Muslims how to get our voices into the public square because we need to. And considering America’s relationship with the Muslim world, we need to counter the uninformed and the unintelligent and provide our country with the conversations about Islam and Muslims that it needs and deserves to have.
Closer to home, Muslims need to learn how to tell their stories. We need to empower those amongst us who can. And we need to have more and better representatives, especially women, as leaders, thinkers, and creative types. It’s remarkable how irrelevant the Muslim world is to global politics and conversations considering our numbers and our distribution across the planet.
A lot of this comes down to the simple fact that we don’t and can’t tell our stories – we don’t put the time, money, or energy into that effort.
Elan: You’ve studied the Islamic world well and wrote a novel, “The Order of Light,” in which you tell a story about young Muslims lighting themselves on fire in protest; an eerie prediction of events to come. Has the frustration within the youth stayed the same?
HM: The Order of Light was a very personal story which was supposed to be part of a longer series. It began with a summer in Egypt, when I retraced the steps some among my family and community had, going abroad to study Arabic and Islam. They say there’s nothing like travel to hold up a mirror to who we are.
But that summer was part of my awakening, as I realized I was not who I thought I was. For someone from a very religiously conservative community, that troubled me greatly but I wrote about that visit.
What was keeping me from Islam? What was keeping the Muslim world down? What did I make of the narrative that some Islamist groups presented, which for a child from a religious family once seemed very persuasive – namely, that because Muslims do not follow Islam properly, their condition in the world is as it is.
I read a lot of Kierkegaard (and Iqbal). I was moved to borrow from the Abraham’s story, and in fact from both sides of the story of Abraham; Abraham, peace be upon him, cut down the idols around him – and then he was thrown into the fire for his heresy. Too often, we Muslims don’t read our stories from every perspective.
I wondered: What are our idols today? Are we ourselves idols? Should we cut ourselves down; or should we burn ourselves at the audacity of thinking we should get our way in the world? Many of those who act violently in the name of Islam are themselves not personally religious people. Their acts of violence are ultimately directed against themselves.
And I think the immolations during the Arab Spring followed the same logic: We are helpless. We are defeated. But rather than lash out at others, some chose to consume themselves, in desperation at their circumstances. Was it wrong to do so, some clerics asked—was it wrong to give up and give in? This feeling of a profound cultural defeat was something I detected when I was in Egypt, and as such, in my novel, I wrote about what it might birth.
I imagined immolations. I foresaw mass protests erupting across Cairo, demanding freedom of choice, but then I wondered: What if it led to Islamic Republics? How would those theocracies address the very problems that had birthed them? As Zaid Shakir once pointed out, a profoundly haram act, of suicide, gave way to the rise of Islamist parties in North Africa. What do we make of that? In The Order of Light, there are intimations that political Islam eventually fails, but dramatically and grandly and terribly. Because what comes after?
Elan: Do you have any other predictions you’d like to share about Muslim youth?
HM: I’ll say this much: Islam is critical to the world, to a degree we don’t realize, and especially the world ahead of us. What happens in Muslim-majority countries will inevitably and invariably affect the planet. The 21st century will be a Muslim century in a way many recent centuries have not been. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be pretty, peaceful, or pleasant to watch. But the Muslim world is finally reasserting itself.
Let’s not underestimate this. A hundred years ago, the Third World—which basically included all of Islam—was colonized, and considered intellectually, culturally, politically and even physically inferior. In many ways, Muslims and global Southerners thought the same of themselves. Today, look at how greatly the world has changed. One day soon we’ll see a woman who wears hijab as President of a country. People with brown and black skin are at the world’s cutting-edge.
And countries like China and Brazil, assumed to be genetically inferior, are racing ahead, while Western Europe seems to fall into a demographic and political slumber. The Muslim world is part of this awakening, one which has been going on for a long time, but I have no idea where it’s headed, except that it’s moving, and hundreds of millions of people moving will shake the planet.
And because so many Muslims are so young, much of Islam will become inflicted by the concerns of young people, struggling against indigenous legacies of patriarchy, autocracy, and stagnation, as well as the realities of colonialism, racism, imperialism and capitalism. The Arab Spring presents us a foreshadowing of this, but I’d be far too forward if I claimed to know how it’ll all shake out.
Elan: Your PhD dissertation focuses on ‘Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s concepts. What inspired you about the Pakistani poet, philosopher and politician to study his work?
HM: I love to teach, so pursuing a doctorate seemed like a natural decision. I went to law school, and dropped out within a month – I was miserable there. So I went to Pakistan to figure myself out. I started studying Urdu, became fascinated by it, and then started on Iqbal, and was moved to realize he was animated by concerns very similar to mine.
How much the world had changed in the past hundred years! When Iqbal went to England in 1905 to study law, he was one of a handful of Indian Muslims who could even dream of pursuing a Western education. Today, South Asians are discriminated against by affirmative action, because of how overrepresented we are in institutions of higher learning. And yet the concerns remain the same – we think about the world in very different ways that our medieval predecessors did.
Must we then think about religion in different ways too? That was Iqbal’s whole project, a very Ghazalian ihya, or revival, but conceived of as a “reconstruction”.
There’s another connection, too. I went through a phase of atheism, and the only thing that drew me back to Islam was the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. There’s a beautiful passage in one of Iqbal’s books, the Javid Nama, in which he writes, “You can deny God, but you cannot deny the Prophet.”
Even though he and I are in so many ways so unlike, this captured me. I’d rejected God. But I couldn’t reject Muhammad. So what then? And that’s what academia is all about. We find questions that are deeply meaningful to us, such that we choose to sit beside them and think about them for years. I have to have the courage to admit: Questions don’t have to have easy answers. Our lives can be lived in search for meaning, but sometimes it’s the search that is more beneficial than its conclusion. I think Iqbal would agree with that. He’d look at crude sloganeering, like ‘Islam is the solution,’ and ask, ‘to what problems?’
Elan: You’re an expert travel guide to Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia. What has their history taught you? And what are some key lessons to learn?
HM: I kept trying to tell people that Islam was a Western religion. I don’t mean that Islam is only Western, because Islam is meant for all times and places, but rather that for centuries Muslims were indigenous to Europe. Spain was not conquered by Muslims, and ruled as some kind of occupied territory. Its Emirs and Caliphs became ethnically Spanish within a few generations, and the majority of its indigenous inhabitants chose to embrace Arabic and the Muslim faith. The idea that Islam was part of the West, and as part of the West, mid-wifed stunning art, music, poetry, and architecture—all of this is a direct challenge to those who malign Islam.
And there’s this, too: Islam was violently eradicated from the Iberian Peninsula and much of Eastern Europe. In fact, since World War II, the worst violence in Europe has come at the hands of Europeans against their fellow Europeans who happened to be or choose to follow the Muslim faith. Hundreds of thousands of European Muslims were slaughtered in Chechnya, the Caucasus Mountains region, Bosnia and Kosovo, during my lifetime.
Every Muslim who can must go to Srebrenica, and know this history. She must go to Bosnia and say to the Bosnians, ‘We have not forgotten about you.’ Because we are Western and Muslim, and their history is our history. We will not accept that this can happen to people on this continent, or any continent, and part of the means to do that is building bridges of trade, understanding, and tourism.
What emerges from these visits is a sense of pride in Muslim history and heritage. I don’t want this to be a backwards-looking, nostalgic pride, but the kind that inspires us to build better communities. I hope these tours change the consciousness of the travelers themselves because in these three countries, Muslims built societies under radically different circumstances and political fortunes, and it is that resilience and creativity which we need so desperately to know about and drink from today.
Elan: What are some current projects you’re working on and what should we look out for?
HM: I gave a TEDx talk recently on the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and how he can be understood by a Western audience. I’m hoping that’s going to go out sometime soon. Other than that, there are a lot of writing projects which never seem to see the light of day. One’s a science fiction novel, one’s a comic book style approach to the history of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and there are autobiographical reflections on my struggle with Islam. Most importantly, anyway, I have a dissertation to write.
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