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What I Told My Muslim Students About Gaza
Muslims in America are more united and have more cultural and political influence than ever. What will they do with it?
Editor’s note: We’re thrilled to be publishing a brilliant Muslim thinker and author, Haroon Moghul, for the first time on Wisdom of Crowds, although some of you might recall his appearance on the podcast last year. I love this piece, for a lot of reasons. It’s raw and honest and speaks to the complexities of the American Muslim experience in a way that I haven’t really seen before. Hope you enjoy it!
When Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, I was on my way to a remote region of Southern Spain with eighteen remarkable young Western Muslim leaders. After five days of learning together, these young men and women would join a much larger convening in Marbella, attended by nearly two hundred senior Western Muslims.
We’d chosen a deliberately isolated site for this mentorship program, which meant it was a few days before what had happened could register. And because we were in a quiet corner of the Iberian Peninsula, I didn’t fully understand how the United States had responded, either—until fellow American delegates arrived in Marbella, bewildered, confused, and disheartened.
“It’s like 9/11 all over again,” they said, again and again and again. They didn’t just mean Hamas’ attacks on civilians—which, to be clear, not one expressed anything but revulsion at, rightly seeing these as flatly contrary to Islam’s foundational values—but how America was reacting, too.
From apolitical professionals to student activists, a hostile climate has captured America, including doxxing, harassment, even murder. A Palestinian-American child, stabbed to death by a man who’d tried to kill his mother. Biden hardly responded to these, though he continued to march the United States into another forever war.
By the time we’d returned home two weeks later, it was clear that Biden’s support among American Muslims (and Arab Americans) had cratered, something the media was late to grasp (and, amazingly, the administration too). Though a small minority, Muslims are young, growing, and live in decisive numbers in decisive states.
The loss of Muslim votes in places like Virginia, Michigan, or Pennsylvania, might hand the election to Trump, whose own rhetoric since October 7 has been appalling. By the time a few more days had passed, many of us wondered if a darker time had not settled upon the world, fearing the consequences for our communities—and kids.
Indeed, many Muslim parents asked me how they should talk to their kids about what was happening. It was a question I was wrestling with too: I’m a stepfather to kids old enough to understand the awfulness of what’s happening. More than that, I teach forty Muslim kids about being Muslim.
Fourteen of them are 11- and 12-year-olds boys: we meet once a week to talk about the manners of Muslim men. The remaining are high school girls and boys: we explore Islam through books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Though both curricula were on pause; I had to help them navigate this awful moment.
That responsibility rescued me from paralysis, cynicism, even despair. There is a surprising convergence between Islam in its essence and the American model of civic life. Islam asks individual believers to take responsibility for our faith commitments. Islam eschews centralized bodies and encourages free-flowing, dynamic community.
Unlike the stultifying top-down models favored by autocrats, which veer dangerously close to a kind of blasphemy, Islam at its essence is closer to American norms, investing power in individual agency over collective decree. That produces fragmentation and division of course. It also leads to creativity and dynamism.
When I was growing up, the intensity of my identification with Muslims in conflict zones like Bosnia and Chechnya was perhaps the consequence of the absence of many actual Muslims in my life. I grew up in New England, my parents having arrived from Pakistan via England just six years before I was born.
There were zero other Muslims in my school, hardly any Muslim infrastructure to speak of, and what institutions we did have were in their formative stages. Most Americans didn’t know much about Islam in part because they’d never have a chance to meet any Muslims. That helps to underscore the trauma of 9/11 in American Muslim memories.
For many Americans that day, who knew little about Islam, in a country with few public Muslim voices it seemed that their Muslim neighbors had attacked them, wanted them to be attacked or, even worse, at any moment might attack them.
Nobody was coming to fix this. We, American Muslims, had to do it on our own.
When I was growing up, my dad would have to drive three hours to find halal food, the mosque was just a modest house, and itinerant Imams rarely spoke English. Today, seminaries compete to raise endowments. Some mosques rival megachurches. Costco’s got halal turkey, but Kroger does too.
The last two decades had been grueling but American Muslims have become part of so much of what we might call the mainstream. For these younger students, who could hardly remember Trump, COVID, Ukraine, Black Lives Matter—these were the debates the adults around them had. Islam was hardly front and center in these.
Until October 7, when in a matter of hours it felt we were catapulted back to 2001. Solidarity with Palestine, shared by so many Muslims, had become dangerous to express. Powerful Americans declared that debating why October 7 had happened (or, say, how to prevent it from happening again) was all but treasonous.
What was I supposed to say to these kids, our kids, about that?
It was just like the days after September 11, when an angry racist killed a Sikh man he believed was Muslim, auguring worse to come. That dark mood drove America to disastrous decisions, cost hundreds of thousands of lives, led us to invade a country that had nothing to do with the war we were prosecuting, and cost us trillions.
America descended into polarization, agony, mistrust, and new kinds of vitriolic nationalism and populism that we cannot seem to escape from. Until I remembered something an American Muslim scholar once said. That home isn’t where your grandparents come from. It’s where your grandkids will live.
We’d been asking ourselves if this was the post-9/11 moment all over again. We’d forgotten that we had come through that moment as different people, more cynical, perhaps, but that much more capable, conscientious, and empowered.
When I sat down with the younger boys for our first class after Israel began bombing Gaza, we started with some questions. What are you guys seeing? How are you feeling? What are people at school saying? They shared fear, sadness, anger. They’d be wrong, I told them, not to feel these things, given the circumstances Palestinians were suffering through.
Of course, I told them that if anyone said anything offensive or hurtful to them, or made them feel unsafe, they were to tell a responsible adult. We, their parents and their community, were and would always be there for them. And before I went into a little bit of the history, I made sure they understood the moral frame behind and above it all.
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Our model for our actions is certainly not how other people treat us. Not even how some Muslims act. Even many Muslims. It begins with our Prophet, peace be upon him, who embodies the scripture he passed on to us. Which seemed necessary before we talked about the Holocaust and colonialism. About Zionism and the nakba.
Israel, I explained, was founded on Palestinian land, and realized by expelling Palestinians from their land; they immediately understood an analogy to Native Americans: the indigenous were replaced to make way for people from elsewhere. But we kept going from past to present.
They knew, of course, that killing people was wrong, but how come when Israelis killed Palestinians, the President, our President, their President, didn’t say much? One of the boys pointed out that since this had been happening for a very long time (imagine an eleven-year-old in 2023 trying to conceive of 1948), wasn’t it hopeless?
Sometimes, of course, the world really is painful, I admitted. But as servants of God, we can’t walk away from the hard stuff. Even at their age, there is much they can do, from praying and learning to volunteering. If that feels small, I reminded them that when a lot of people do a small thing, it can add up to a very big thing.
And then, a few days later, with the older kids, we talked in detail about the history of the conflict, why Biden’s kneejerk response threatens to drag America into another forever war (and how that’s bad for everyone, including Israelis).
We talked about how, when we choose to leave injustices unaddressed, people with bad ideas and bad intentions will rush in and fill the gap. And when leaders fail, including our elected leaders—to say nothing of the largely feckless leadership class of the Muslim-majority world—it is on us to step up.
It always is. That’s what Islam teaches. And that’s what they’re doing. They stepped up. From asking to read Palestinian literature next, to joining marches and protests for peace, to sharing resources, asking tough questions, calling elected officials, and mobilizing. And that’s why, I realized, this is not September 12, 2001.
We American Muslims might reflexively go there, haunted by certain similarities and parallels but, in doing so, we forget that who we are is not who we were. American Muslims from all different backgrounds, regions and perspectives, who might never have seen eye to eye, are right now sitting down with one another.
We are confronting a troubling social climate by talking, participating, and collaborating. Sunni and Shia. Black and Latino. Pakistani and Senegalese. Secular and traditional. Conservative and progressive. I’ve never seen this kind of Muslim community and purposeful unity before. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.
Our years of building our own institutions—because nobody else would (welcome to secular and plural democracy) compelled us to become resourceful, resilient, and engaged. We are among the most if not the most diverse Muslim nationalities in the world yet we work together in ways few other Muslim communities can.
And when our rights are infringed upon, we fight for them, refreshing and renewing American democracy as we do. That can change American policy in ways that are good for Americans of course, but good for Palestinians, and even for Israelis.
If this is a 9/11 moment, it’s also a 9/11 moment twenty years later, and that is what my students and I should talk about, too. When the towers were taken down, American Muslims like myself scrambled to respond. We had few relationships with each other. Little institutional knowledge. Paltry resources.
How did we get from there to here? What worked and what didn’t? What should we have done differently? What brings us together? Are our differences inevitable or just unfortunate? We can think through what it means to be an American and a Muslim all over again. Because, after all, every generation has to define its own faith.
And it would be naïve to think they’d grow up in a world that could never blindside them. Some of these kids will be voting for the first time next year. What should they do when candidates let them down? When political parties fail? Nobody had those conversations with me. In August 2001, I didn’t know I’d need those conversations.
I wouldn’t have the first clue who to turn to either. I knew so much less then. We know more now. We might have had to get here the hard way. But here we are.
Haroon Moghul is the Director of Strategy at The Concordia Forum, a global network of senior Muslim leaders dedicated to pluralism, dialogue, and shared success through service. An historian and occasional Friday preacher, he is the author of several books, including How to be a Muslim: An American Story and Two Billion Caliphs: A Vision of a Muslim Future.
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