According to many, being Muslim and American, or Muslim and western of any stripe, are contradictions in terms. You have done a lot of work to overcome some of these stereotypes. Clearly, a lot more work needs to be done. What are some practical things people can do?
It’s particularly pronounced for Muslims these days, but the binary is increasingly applied to all kinds of communities—can you be an immigrant and an American, or black and French? My experience and context is American; I can’t speak to other contexts. There are many things that can be done, on a personal and everyday level, scaled up to the national. First and foremost, simple engagement makes a huge difference. A mosque, for example, should be an institution that serves its wider community, that connects with elected officials, interfaith partners, and empowers local residents, in addition to, of course, serving as a spiritual and communal hub.
There needs to be greater investment in producing journalists, supporting artists, encouraging storytellers, and developing the capability to resist discriminatory legislation and rhetoric. As these capacities are realized, it’s possible for a community to build more durable partnerships and establish itself more effectively. Last but not least, who is talking to Republicans? There are many Republicans who are deeply dismayed by the rise of Donald Trump and the debasement of their party. They may not have been and may very well still not be amenable to all of one’s politics, but they are part of the American landscape, many of them have been civil servants or elected officials, and all of them matter.
For me, I’ve invested in two roles that I believe help make America a better place, and help Muslims too. The first is creative. Hence the book. The second is educational. The more we understand the nuances and complexities of different communities, the less tempted we are to demonize them. We can instead find platforms, social and political, that emphasize our common interests and shared values—that everyone should be treated equally, that government is best when it checks and balances itself, that no person should be held accountable for the actions of another, that there is and must be due process, that the institutions of the state serve the people, and not themselves.
Many Muslims "came of age" post 9-11. That has left many Muslims traumatized, and the traumas continue today of course. What are some of the ways you have dealt with those traumas?
I went to three phases after the September 11th attacks. At first it was largely reactive—in effect, I was answering the question: “Do Muslims condemn terrorism?” By condemning it. That met the need of the moment, but it was exhausting, too. Not only did I ask myself why I must be held accountable for the actions of another, but whether staying on this public relations hamster wheel was getting me, or us, anywhere. The second phase was exhaustion. I burned out, overworked and underpaid, I simply had no more capacity for doing the work I’d been so committed to. And the third, well, you can read my book. All three phases are there.
How do you think Muslims - and non-Muslims - deal with mental health issues? In my experience, Muslims deal with them very poorly. What advice would you have for people?
You’re right about that. We hardly talk about these problems, let alone address them. I do think every community has its own particularities, its own languages and frames, its own priorities and technologies of the self. Islam is just one among many collective answers to the question: What does it mean to be a human being, and a good one at that? So we need to develop resources, sophisticated, peer-reviewed, generous, and widely available, that can address mental health issues in languages that Muslim communities find themselves at ease with.
You can’t help someone if you can’t make yourself heard. Too, we need to take the stigma away, which is one reason why I wrote the book I did—it wasn’t just about me making sense of how my life fell apart, but it was me trying to communicate to a broader audience that these things are real, they can cause serious harm, and that they can also be addressed with patience, with effort, with dedication. We can live better lives. We just need to be willing to get there, and need an awful lot of support along the way. Which is part of my advice.
There is great stigma attached to mental health issues. And yet, if you’re suffering, you are suffering—not the people who might be judging you or mocking you or condescending to you. At some point along the way, you have to decide that you have value, that value means the right to live a decent life, and that this is not at cross-purposes with religion (except as people have abused it): Not one of you is a believer, after all, until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself. “What he wants for himself.” Would you want your brother to suffer? And if so, why would you let yourself suffer? Maybe by my talking about my own struggles, given that I have a somewhat public profile, I give people the confidence to talk about their own.
Religion is such a fraught topic in educated circles, and no religion is more fraught as a topic than Islam. What do you think people can take away from your book?
I’m not discounting the importance of politics, economics, sociology—these are all significant concerns and important fields. But Islam is not a materialist, ideological or political project. It is a means of developing a relationship with God, and developing a certain kind of self. That’s why I turned earlier, and in the book, to the Foucauldian concept of a “technology of the self”; we are about becoming something.
That’s a messy, convoluted and complicated process, the interaction (and frequently the clash) of nature and nurture, of culture and community, of individual and collective, of material and transcendent, and of course this is my story of my struggle, but nevertheless the individual reflects the milieu in which he lives. Which is a reason for my book.
I want people to see how Muslims struggle to be Muslim, which is, at bottom, a very human story, a universal soul in an Islamicate body. Among the most moving responses I’ve gotten to the book are from atheists, who’ve said that though their worldview is very different, they sympathized with, related to, and found inspiration in, my story. Which was so meaningful.
It meant I’d told a story that many different kinds of people could relate to.
Can one, so to speak, pick up the pieces in the end - the pieces that are created by such a fragmented and fragmenting world we all live in? How has your religious-spiritual life helped you? How has it hindered you?
I’d have liked to think that where I was at the end of writing the book was where I would stay; that, at least, there was now a floor to my life—that I would not fall as I’d fallen before. The best laid plans of mice and men, after all. The irony is that right around the time the book was coming together, my life was unraveling. But I found myself to be more resilient than I was before.
Some of that is the resilience we develop in our own life, just because of the things we’ve been through. Some of that is through spiritual discipline, which reminds me that none of us is ultimately meant to be here, and that though this world is important, it is not the end unto itself. Not that that’s so easy to remember when you’re in the thick of things… but it’s a goal to be worked towards.
I find we make much better life choices when we keep that sense of perspective in place. Religion becomes an anchor, and a means of talking to God, and there’s nothing quite like conversing with the Divine. I know no other source of calmness, tranquility and reassurance that compares; I could intellectualize it, but it is the act of talking, and not talking about talking, that matters.
That process is just one more step in acknowledging the full complexity of one’s identity, and then, with that awareness, determining what direction one wants to spend the rest of one’s life, however long it is, moving in. For me the book is how I got to that point where I could do that for myself. It’s kind of a preamble to the life a part of me has always wanted to live, and now can actually try to.