Ismail Royer, a former jihadist who spent 12 years in prison on terror-related charges, spoke with Focus on Western Islamism (FWI) in a wide-ranging interview late last month. In the interview, recently published on FWI's website, Royer portrays Islamism as a modernist perversion of Islam and condemns the use of the word "Islamophobia" as a "secularizing term" that falsely portrays Islam as an ethnicity and not as a truth claim about the relationship between humanity and its creator. In the interview, he also declared Muslim leaders should pay attention to the criticism leveled at them by Daniel Pipes, a longtime critic of Islamism.
After converting to Islam in 1992, Royer began working with Bosnian refugees in his native St. Louis. After a brief stint with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, D.C., he went to Bosnia to fight in that country's civil war. Royer came back home after the war ended in Bosnia, but eventually found his way to Kashmir in an attempt to recapture the feelings of excitement and sense of purpose that he had found while fighting in the Balkans.
Below are some of the highlights of the full interview, which can be read here.
On His Trips to Kosovo and Kashmir
I was trying to relive Bosnia. I was trying to relive that experience. Imagine that you're on a mountain and in front of you are war criminals who want to commit genocide against the people who are behind you. And the people behind you, they are these little old ladies and these old men working in their fields. Here I am, lying between, these war criminals and these innocent people and these people are shooting at me and I'm shooting at them. It was this level of meaning, significance and importance that I was really missing.
Islamism is the secularization of religion by modernity and the transformation of religion into a political program. That is not to say that God does not want us to orient our lives or polities in certain ways — He does.
But with Islamism, there's really an absence of spirituality, and there's an absence of orientation towards God. You can see it. Watch those ISIS or Al Qaeda videos, watch the Islamists, generally, when they speak. Their focus is on transforming the world. That's their focus. It's almost nothing about themselves. It's almost nothing about their heart, and it's black and white worldview — "We are the saved ones, and everyone else are cursed."
On His Attraction to Islamism
When I came back to America to finish my degree in Washington, D.C., I had a hard time readjusting to normal civilian life. I had been in battles. I had experienced the life of a soldier, a Mujahid. There was the combination of a high level of faith along with a very high level of risk and danger. Your life could end at any moment. You had this camaraderie with the people. It was just a very different existence. And I started to miss those feelings.
On His Relationship with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET)
I liked the folks in LET. I had been very opposed to Bin Laden. I thought Al Qaeda was a group of deviants. I had been recommended to go to LET and told it was not an extremist group, that they leaned toward the imam of Saudi Arabia. They also told me that they did not attack civilians. I thought that this was a group that was good, that was on the right path. I would have considered myself Salafi at the time.
On Recruiting for LET
I encouraged Muslims at the mosque to go to LET and train with them [in Kashmir]. The training was not really very serious, it was more like tourism. It was more like, "Here, we'll let you shoot a gun and we'll let you traipse around the mountains and then go back home." It was almost a form of a promotion. What they were really trying to do was to make contacts in the West or from the Arab or Gulf countries. Someone would go there, get "trained," and then go back home. Then LET would be able to hit them up for donations. [...] That's really what they wanted — Western connections to extend their network and their reach. You could go there and get more high-level training if they thought you could be a fighter. Then they would send you to fight against the Indian police or military in Kashmir.
On the Impact of Prison
For me ... Islam had become a project, a worldly project, and the spiritual dimension atrophied. So, when I went to prison, I was sitting there. I was in solitary confinement for two and a half years. I'm sitting there and I'm no longer able to contribute to the project. (Laughs).
At that point, the question was, "What is my Islam then? What is Islam to me?" It would have been very easy, where it's just me in a room, to have left Islam. I had to ask myself, "Well, what do I believe? Why do I believe it?" I had to sit there and reflect and do some rebuilding and re-thinking of who I was and what I believed. ... I had to do some rebuilding, some rethinking, of who I was. One thing that helped me a lot being in solitary was that I had just the Quran.
On the State of Islamic Civilization
Islamic civilization is in the state that it is because it has fallen into the trap of resentment and defensiveness. No civilization can recover when it is resentful and defensive, and this is the problem in Islamic civilization. It's also something that we need to reflect on in America. My advice to those of us who are involved in these attempts to renew what is slipping out of our fingers is "Don't be defensive. Don't be resentful. You have to be winsome."
On American Civilization
America is really the primary carrier of civilizational substance, of classical civilization. America continues since its founding to be grounded in the "truth of the soul" .... Our founding documents, going back as far as you want, including the Declaration of Independence, treat the truth of God as self-evident.
On a Christian-Muslim Alliance
America is a Christian country. It was founded as a Christian country. It was founded in Christian principles. It just so happens that those Christian principles that it was founded on are also principles that Muslims share. And so, I would like to see a restoration. I would like to see a restoration of those principles.
On Muslims in America
I see America as being a potential Ethiopia [where a Christian king dealt justly with Mohammad and his companions]. In fact, it is, it really is. It's not even potential. To a large extent it is to us what Ethiopia was to the first Muslims. It's not just because people leave you alone, you can practice your religion as Muslims. We actually (laugh) share in the consensus of this civilization.
On Daniel Pipes
I used to advise people, "What Daniel Pipes is saying ... we must be open-minded here, because a lot of what he is saying is actually ringing true with me. We are messing up a little bit here." It's been very well said that your enemy will tell you the truth before your friend. Your friend will flatter you. If someone has set themselves up to be your adversary, you should listen to what they're saying because they may be onto something. If you do that, then you may learn something about yourself. And I think that's what's happened. I do think [Daniel Pipes] was onto a lot of truths that were worth reflecting on.
On the Dangers of "Islamophobia"
["Islamophobia"] assumes that society is composed of victimized groups and one victimizer — which would be white Christian males – and that merit lies in victimization. The more victimized you are, the more meritorious the more value you have. This is the intersectionality thing.
Let's say you're a disabled, Hispanic, Shiite transgender. (Laughs). By the time you layer up all these intersectionalities, you've become a saint. "Islamophobia" presumes the truth of this sort of moral ontology and epistemology, so it's a very dangerous term.
On the Council of American-Islamic Relations
I actually disagree with a lot of what they're doing strategically and philosophically — the victimhood, marginalized group politics — I really very much disagree with that. But they do some good too. If they ever did aim to do PR for the Muslim Brotherhood, well, that's not what's happening now. If that's what they're trying to do, they're not being very effective at it. I think what's happened is that they've been taken over by the need to function like a kind of Anti-Defamation League for the Muslim community. That's what their primary aim is. They're always going to say something if ... something happens in the Palestine-Israel conflict. But I don't think that it's their main role institutionally. And I definitely don't think anyone is being radicalized.
On the Charlie Hebdo Massacre
The terrorist attack is a horrible crime and the people who did it should rightfully be executed because of what they did. This massive terrorist attack is not called for, it's not allowed in Islam. You're not allowed to do that. But there's a broader problem here. The broader problem is how do you address the disease in Western culture, this disease of the soul, of hatred for the sacred. That problem is not solved by these terrorist attacks, and it's also not solved by saying, "Hey, this is great. This is fine. We like free speech."
It's true that it is arguably covered by free speech, that's fine. We don't disagree with that. The problem is you need to go and talk to the people who are doing that and say, "Hey, come to church with me." (Laughs.) "Stop doing what you're doing. It's crazy. This is not being a good neighbor towards other people."
Dexter Van Zile is managing editor of the Middle East Forum publication Focus on Western Islamism.