If Ismail Royer hadn’t abandoned Islamist radicalism while serving a 12-year stint in federal prison on terror related charges in the early 2000s, he could very well have ended up in the upper echelons of the Muslim Brotherhood and rubbed shoulders with Yusef al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the movement who died late last year in Qatar. Royer’s Islamist bona fides were that good.
Royer was one of the first activists chosen to work alongside well-known Islamists Nihad Awad and Ibrahim Hooper at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) soon after its founding in the early 1990s. In between stints at CAIR, he saw combat while fighting alongside Muslims in the Bosnian civil war and after that worked as a publicist for Lashkar-e-Taiba [LET], a jihadist group in Pakistan. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that for a few years, Royer was a member of — and a recruiter for — an informal foreign legion that sent Muslims from the U.S. to fight in jihads around the world. “It was almost like foreign legion of Muslims who were going around to different hotspots helping Muslims defend themselves,” he said.
Before being sent to prison in 2004, Royer was also a vocal critic of the counter Islamist community in the U.S. In 2002, he described Middle East Forum’s President (and FWI publisher) Daniel Pipes a “pop bigot” who had had “served up another steaming shovelful of fertilizer” in a piece he had written about Islamism on college campuses. (“I was so foolish,” Royer admits.)
If Royer, a St. Louis native, hadn’t abandoned Islamism, he could have played a role in modernizing Islamism so it could operate more effectively in Western democracies. In fact, a few people in the counter-Islamist community suspect that’s what he’s up to despite his public condemnations of the movement since his release from prison.
These days, any effort to promote Royer as a next-generation Islamist would run into trouble once people started looking at the things he has said and written since getting out of prison in 2016. Eventually, they would see that Royer has distanced himself from jihadism and Islamism, just like Umar Lee, his friend whom he has known for more than 30 years.
For example, Royer has encouraged Christians in the United States to affirm their faith in the public square not because it is “good” for the country, but because they believe Christianity to be “true.” He describes Islamists who think they can conquer the West as delusional crackpots.
And while he said some harsh things about Daniel Pipes in the early 2000s, Royer, like Pipes, has argued for years that Islamism is not an authentic expression of the Muslim faith. Royer goes so far to say that Islamists make cynical use of the Islamic tradition to pursue modernist utopian goals that have nothing to do with the faith, but instead have their roots in the French Revolution, which sought to replace God with man as the center of creation. By Royer’s logic, Islamists have take God out of the center of the Muslim faith and replaced it with a political program.
If all this wasn’t enough to disqualify Royer from the upper echelons of the Muslim Brotherhood, there’s the little matter of his current job as Director of the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team for the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI) in Washington, D.C. where he works with Christians and Jews to defend religious freedom. While at RFI, Royer has condemned Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and has even declared that the “Islamist project of using the modern state as a vehicle for reconstituting the Islamic order is doomed.”
In a move that will likely offend some of his friends in the Muslim community, Royer sat down with FWI’s managing editor Dexter Van Zile for a wide-ranging interview which lasted almost three hours. During the conversation Royer spoke about his conversion to Islam, the foolishness of his youth, Islamism’s dead end, the “disastrous invention of the word Islamophobia,” and what Muslims have to offer to democracy in America. In addition to speaking about the status of Muslims in Europe, Royer also speaks about his friendship with former Salafist Umar Lee who was interviewed by FWI in November 2022.
The interview, which has been condensed, edited for clarity took place on December 30, 2022. Links have been added for context.
Catholic Roots and Conversion
FWI: What’s your conversion story?
Ismail Royer: I was baptized and raised Catholic. My mother had been a nun before she left the convent and, and then met my father while she was in college in St. Louis. My father was Protestant, but not practicing, so I kind of went along with my mom to Catholic church. I went to fairly elite Catholic private schools up until the eighth grade, mainly because of my test scores. We couldn’t afford it, but I was getting scholarships. My grandmother also helped pay — my mother came from a wealthy family, [but we weren’t]. I started noticing the fact that my classmates were wealthy and that I was not.
This kind of created a disconnect. I got into punk rock because it helped resolve things. It helped me say “Well, I don’t want to be like you then. I can’t be you. My mom works at McDonald’s to afford a Polo sweater for me, and that’s my one Polo sweater while you guys will have one for every day of the week.” There was no way for us to catch up with that.
The whole punk thing was like, “Screw you guys!” (Laughs.) I was always very aware of the superficiality of shopping and who said what about whom. Those things were stupid to me. I was always interested in kind of deeper things, so I got into the punk movement — Black Flag, Henry Rollins. There was certainly a left-wing element to it. But then there was also a heavily introspective element to it, self-examination. When you’re 13, you do a lot of that. I was trying to figure out who I was and had a lot of anxiety about where I fit in. So eventually I got into I gravitated towards left-wing music, the Dead Kennedys and their criticism of U.S. policy and Latin America, El Salvador and, and Guatemala.
Turn to Atheism
Then the Iran-Contra scandal happened. It was the late 80s and I became very upset with injustices that were going on around the world in the name of the U.S. government. Then the Gulf War happened in ‘91 and I was involved in protests over that. Eventually, I found myself an atheist because I had really swallowed a lot of these kind of critiques of religion and U.S. imperialism. But I had been raised Catholic, a believer, and not just in a superficial way. We had very serious religion classes and growing up I used to love going to church. I loved going to mass. I really felt like God was listening to me. I felt communion with God.
My period of atheism didn’t really sit well with me and when the Soviet Union collapsed, it kind of threw a lot of doubt into me even though I was never really a Communist. I was always looking for the truth. Communism was an ideology that millions of people believed, and it was nonsense. I remember very specifically a point where I was sitting, drinking, smoking marijuana. I was 17 or 18 and asking “Is this right or wrong?” If I had asked myself this when I was 13, I would’ve been able to say, “It’s wrong.” But then, I didn’t have any basis for saying what was right and wrong. I had painted myself into a corner. I was looking at all these ideologies. It never really resolved itself an “Aha!” moment where I could say, “This is what’s true.”
I was listening to a lot of reggae and there was one song in particular by Peter Tosh [“Jah Guide”], where he’s just reciting Psalm 23 — “Though I trod through this valley, I will fear no evil,” over a lovely reggae background. And I said to myself, “Wow, that is really deep. I mean, that’s really beautiful.” It made me think of scripture in a new way. Before that, for what seemed like such a long time, but was only 3-4 years, I had been thinking of the Bible and Christianity as false, as a tool of manipulation. When I heard that song, my response was “That’s true. It’s so profoundly deeply true.” It just touched me. I knew there was something to it.
One day, I was skateboarding past a church that I used to go to when I was younger, St. Joseph’s Catholic church in in in West County, St. Louis. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. I was searching.
I was interested in Islam because I had read Malcolm X’s autobiography and like Umar Lee, I had been really worked up about racial injustice. The Rodney King riots happened right around that time and Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” had come out. And at this point I was in this high school that was under a desegregation order. This is the late 80s, early 90s and it was still under desegregation order. The student body of my high school was comprised of about 40 percent black students bused in from the inner city. I was exposed to a lot of music and a lot of black culture and had an awareness of what peoples’ lives were like in the inner city. I started listening to Public Enemy even though they were Nation Islam oriented — but they had Malcolm X samples in their songs and I had read his book. I was bothered by the Nation of Islam [which portrays white people as devils], but was reassured by what Malcolm wrote about his Haj at the end of his biography.
Around this time, I ended up meeting with an African American Muslim who was part of the Warith Deen Mohammed community. I met him in Denny’s Restaurant 3 a.m. in a total chance encounter, which of course is God’s plan. He overheard a friend of mine and I talking about civil rights issues, and he was really intrigued to see two white guys from the suburbs of West County talking about this. He invited me over to his table, and we started talking, and we ended up becoming friends. We ended up sharing an apartment.
He had a copy of the Qur’an. I read it and it didn’t strike me as foreign. I didn’t really know about Islam other than what I had read about Malcolm X’s and the Nation of Islam ideology.
I was stunned. When I read the story of Moses and the story of Abraham, I was actually surprised to find that this was all fairly familiar to me, even though it was telling it from a different angle. It wasn’t something strange. It seemed very familiar to me. I was attracted to it.
But I had a problem. I didn’t believe in God. The “Aha!” moment came for me came when my friend and I were in a, a park, and it was a beautiful day out. There was a bird in the tree singing, and it was a beautiful day out. And he says:
Do you see that bird? That bird is at peace. It’s at harmony with God’s creation. And you can have that peace too, if you become Muslim, because ‘Muslim’ means one who submits to the will of God. And that bird does only what God wants it to do. He has, he has no choice, but we have the choice. We have free will. We have the choice over whether or not we submit to God or rebel against his plan. When we all do what God wants us to do, then we have peace, like that bird does.
When he said that, I suddenly realized that I believed in God. It was not logical proof. It was not an argument. It was a reminder that I believed in God. He was telling me something I already knew. I knew what he was saying was true. I was like “Oh, yeah.” (Laughs.) This is what Plato calls anamnesis. Likewise in Islam we believe that God has written onto the hearts of human beings that their origin is in Him, from Him and that anyone who is honest with oneself can know by memory that God exists. Of course, there are very powerful arguments for the existence of God, and I don’t discount those, but ultimately, the certainty about God’s existence came from remembering.
I started visiting mosques and when I went into the mosque second or third time, Umar was there. I sat with some guys from Pakistan and they were very down to earth and very friendly and very warm. They asked me a series of questions of “Do you believe in the Day of Judgement? Do you believe in angels? Do you believe in the books? In prophecy?”
“Yeah, I believe all those,” I said.
“And so, do you believe that Muhammed is a prophet?” they asked.
I said, “Well I don’t know much about Muhammad, but if he taught these things and I believe in them, then it’s plausible.’
“Like why not? Why not? was my thinking at the time. “Sure.”
And so that was that. The next morning when I woke up, I went home and I woke up and I said, “Oh, wow! what did I do?” I have two choices at this point. I can just sort of pretend that never happened. (Laughs.) I mean, I can just never go back over there. Or I can take this seriously and really start to be a Muslim. That’s, that’s what I did. Of course, it takes a long time. The process of trying to orient yourself towards God never ends.
FWI: Can you talk a little bit about your friendship with Umar Lee?
Ismail Royer: Umar Lee is the first person that I met when I walked into a mosque at age 19 in 1992 to learn about Islam. He was standing inside the door when I walked in. (Laughs). I asked him about Islam, and we just started talking. When I formally accepted Islam, he was there, and we we’ve known each other ever since. (Laughs.) We’ve very much disagreed very much on many things but he’s someone who has been a part of my life for 30 years. He’s almost a brother, a family member. You can have the deepest disagreements with your uncle at Thanksgiving but, at the end of the day, you’re still family and that’s how it is with me and Umar.
From Activism to Jihad
FWI: You got into a jam at one point.
Ismail Royer: Oh, I got in many jams. (Laughs.) Many, many jams.
On one level, I was just a religious convert on a religious journey, a spiritual journey. I was trying to learn more about my faith. And there was another level, which was the social issue. I had a whole bunch of friends and had been in a band. We had our lifestyle of girls, fun and parties. We were also heavily intellectual. We’re reading a lot of heavy stuff which [after my conversion] I realized now was not the answer to what I was looking for. I had a hard time disengaging from that.
But making new friends was easy for me. I made a whole bunch of new Muslim friends in St. Louis. I decided to go to American University in St. Louis to study political science. While I was there, I started working with Bosnian refugees who had a very strong presence in the area. I was doing a lot of work with these refugees and started to pay a lot of attention to what was going in Bosnia.
About a year after having converted, I moved to D.C., starting another level of my journey — activism. It took over and swallowed the rest of my development [as a Muslim]. I started working [as an editor] at the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) in 1993 or 1994. At WAMY, we were getting faxes all the time from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which had just started up. They had a pretty good fax list. This is obviously pre-internet. We’re getting faxes asking, for example, people to write a letter to the embassy of Trinidad, asking them to allow this woman to wear a hijab in her passport photo, those kinds of things.
Hired by CAIR
I wound up being tasked by WAMY to write letters responding to CAIR’s requests. I started seeing all these faxes from them, and they seem to be doing some really interesting work. Someone said to me, “Hey, I heard that CAIR is hiring.” That’s a heck of a lot more interesting than what I was doing at the time. I applied and was hired right away. At that time, there were only three people working in the office at K Street or in their homes.
FWI: Who are the folks who hired you? Ibrahim Hooper and Nihad Awad?
Ismail Royer: Yes. Nihad and Ibrahim hired me.
After I moved to D.C., I was still following the situation in Bosnia and something in me just didn’t sit right. I just couldn’t sit there any longer and do nothing. I had been an activist mode before becoming Muslim. I had protested against the First Gulf War. We were also talking about the aftermath of the Afghan War. There was still sort of a memory of how the Mujahideen had kicked the Soviets out. There were promotional videos going around fundraising for the jihad in Afghanistan. We would watch these videos of these Afghans and Arabs fighting the Soviets. Then I heard that there were Arabs and foreigners in Bosnia and that if someone wanted to, they could go and fight there.
Off to Bosnia
I quit CAIR, and went to Slovenia, where the family of a friend of mine, a refugee from St. Louis, was living. Then I went from Slovenia down to Croatia and to Bosnia, and I connected with the Bosnian military. Because I was a foreigner, they sent me to a foreign brigade of mostly Arabs. I trained with them and then fought with the Arabs supporting Bosnian army operations until the end of the war in 95. I turned 21 in Bosnia.
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. So, I went back to Bosnia less than a year later, in 1996. By that time, of course, Bosnia is starting to adjust to peace. The war was not there anymore. I’m missing the feeling of it. I got married there and Bosnia and brought my wife back to the United States.
When I came back to the United States in 1997, I started working at CAIR again. I really threw myself into work. My main job was case intake of civil rights complaints, mostly dealing with employment because it was a real issue. A lot of companies didn’t know anything about laws that require accommodation of religious practices. I mostly focused on that.
Failed Trip to Kosovo
Then the war in Kosovo started, I decided I was going to try to go there. (Laughs). 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. So, I wound up trying to go to Kosovo. I got as far as Macedonia where I got stuck because the Kosovans were not accepting people who would just come in to fight.
Then NATO bombed the Serbs and they surrendered, so obviously the war was over. I came back and tried to start working at CAIR again. My wife was extremely irritated with me, with all this traipsing around. We had kids and she expected me to be a responsible husband and that’s not what I was being.
Then Russia invaded Chechnya for the second time in 1999. I was with a friend of mine, a Yemeni guy who wound up being my co-defendant in the case that I went to prison for. It was Ramadan. I looked at him and I said, “Hey, I’m really thinking about going to Chechnya.” And he said, “Me too.” My friend had learned that the Chechens would not accept people who didn’t have prior military training and he had none — but I did from my time in Bosnia.
We figured that Lashkar-e-Taiba [LET] in Pakistan would give people training so we decided we would go there so that he could get training, and then we would go from there to Chechnya. We both got plane tickets to go and then my friend wound up not being able to get the visa. But I had a plane ticket and when I got there, I got horribly sick. I was down for about three weeks and by the time I recovered, I was no longer in the mood to fight. At that point I had concluded, “I’m done with this.” But I still felt still felt the Mujahadeen mystique.
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.
Remember, this was before 9/11 — before ISIS. I was in the mode of freedom fighters going to Afghanistan, going to Bosnia. It was almost like foreign legion of Muslims who were going around to different hotspots helping Muslims defend themselves. Admittedly, I had a very romanticized view of the cause. I knew that there were crazy people in Algeria for example, and I knew of Al Qaeda, of course, but they were, in my mind, kind of marginal.
The whole jihadi movement was in flux. It was not a static thing. If you were to show ISIS videos to Abdullah Azzam, he would’ve been horrified, even though there’s kind of an inevitable way of succeeding waves of an ideology become more and more extreme. This is kind of what happened.
FWI: Who is Abdullah Azzam?
Ismail Royer: Abdullah Azzam was a Palestinian who was one of the main cheerleaders of the Afghan war against the Soviets. He’s the one who introduced Arabs into the conflict. He himself had not initially conceived of Arabs fighting there. That’s what it morphed into. At first, he was just promoting and fundraising for them but then it morphed into Arabs going there and fighting, including Osama Bin Laden. But even Bin Laden at that early time was not the same Bin Laden who later came under the influence of Ayman al-Zawahri and became further radicalized.
Recruiting for Lashkar-e-Taiba
Eventually, this trajectory of increasing extremism overtook the entire jihadi movement and now basically defines it. But at that time many people who were involved in the cause didn’t consider themselves at war with America or their countries of origin. The people that I was with in Bosnia followed the mufti of Saudi Arabia, but then later Saudis affiliated ISIS and even Al Qaeda and those groups considered the mufti of Saudi Arabia to be apostate. It was indicator of the increasing extremism of the jihadi movement and the way it was overtaken by its most extreme elements. This was kind of inevitable given the seeds of the movement.
This was part of this part of my naivete. I’m missing all this and thinking that there’s some way for me to be involved and for it to make sense. And again, I’m chasing that dragon, I’m looking for that adventure and that sense of meaning and significance.
So, I decided to stay involved with LET without fighting in Kashmir. Instead, I started helping LET with their internet newsletters. I started helping them to write a newsletter and respond to media coverage of them.
I continued to do that when I came back to America. I was living in the D.C. area, Northern Virginia. I encouraged young Muslims at the mosque to go to LET and train with them. 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. Some of the people that I connected LET with went to help them get paintball equipment and a drone. 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.
That’s what I was involved with. And then 9/11 happened. And when 9/11 happened, I made the very, very bad decision of listening to advice to help people go to [Kashmir]. We had a lecturer, a local scholar who advised us to leave America.
“After 9/11,” he said, “there’s going to be a lot of attacks Muslims. Muslims are going be persecuted.” So, I helped people go to Kashmir — not with the intent of fighting against America — because the fighting with the Taliban was the exact opposite side of Pakistan. But the idea was “Go be with the Mujahideen. These are the real Muslims.” It was a, a terrible mistake. I sent, I think, probably about five people there.
The war in Afghanistan continued for decades in one sense, ended in that the Taliban were initially defeated. And Muslims were not being put into camps in [the U.S.] like we thought was going happen. So, everyone returned back to their homes. We realized we made a stupid mistake and tried to go on with our lives. Well, the FBI had picked up all that movement and all that travel and started investigating where people were going and what was happening.
So, I was one of around 13 people who were indicted for various charges. Ultimately, I pleaded guilty to two charges related to aiding and abetting firearms violations — related to firearms that were used in Kashmir. The underlying offense was violating the Neutrality Act, which is the law that prohibits American citizens from getting involved in conflicts in which the United States is neutral. I was charged with many offenses like conspiracy to help the Taliban. But those were dropped in the plea agreement. [In 2004, Royer began a 12-year-stint in Federal prison.]
FWI: What impact did prison have on your Islamist leanings?
Ismail Royer: I mentioned my journey in Islam taking place on different levels. There was the spiritual journey of a person who is involved in a relationship with God, trying to seek God. There was the activism layer, and there was the social layer. For me, activism swallowed everything else. Islam had become a project, a worldly project, and the spiritual a 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 who I was and what I believed. As I did, I concluded that I definitely believed in God. I believed that he sent prophets and I believe that Muhammad was a prophet. I believed in the angels.
One thing that helped me a lot being in solitary was that I had just the Qur’an. I had just the Qur’an I had gotten to the level where I could read Arabic and the Qur’an and [understand the] vocabulary. There are some rare words, but there are a lot of words that are repeated in different declensions and tenses. So, I started reading a lot and becoming more familiar with it. It was easier for me to read the Qur’an. I was understanding a lot of things I hadn’t before. I had not really bothered to read the Qur’an like that on the outside — before prison. There were some verses that really, really moved me, I mean, really moved me.
(At this point, Royer recited Surah 57:3 in Arabic before offering his translation: “He is the first the first and the last. He is the most obvious and the most present. And the most hidden.”)
I still reflect on this verse. It’s sort of like the experience with the bird [in the park with my Muslim mentor before I converted.] It is not some sort of logical argument; it’s a reminder of who I am — that I am a creature in relation to God, and that my reason for being is Him. I began reorienting.
Then someone sent me a book, An Agenda to Change Our Condition by Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir. This book really was very important to me because it was very simple. It was very simple, almost kind of a workbook. To change our condition! That’s what I was always interested in, right? “I have to help the Muslims, help the Muslims!” But this book’s message was “You start with yourself. That’s how you change.” The agenda to change our condition could be an Islamist handbook.
FWI: Like Let us be Muslims [by Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi].
Ismail Royer: Right. The title is, has kind of like, political program sound, but it’s not. When you get into it and you read it, says, “It’s the heart, start with the heart.” It baits you in, it baits in the people for whom Islam is just a worldly project. That’s what it did to me, too. It’s a very beautiful book. In the end, I realized that I had totally approached Islam in completely the wrong way and that I needed to work on myself. One of the major “internal operations” that I did, was to say to myself, “How did I get myself in this situation?” And when you ask these things, it takes the emphasis away from how “These other people did this and that to me. The government did this. And that guy who cooperated [with the prosecution] did this to me, and I’m going to…”
I said to myself, “Hold a minute. I would never have been in this situation if I hadn’t made like a very long series of very stupid and naive decisions, and mistakes and misunderstandings, and [prison] is not where I want to be right now, very clearly. So how did I get here?”
Working my way back from prison, I could see what happened. And since getting out of prison, I have tried [to keep God at the center], even though I’m involved in what could be described as political activities. It’s not the same as before. It’s not pointless. I’m very interested in questions like “What does God want of us as human beings? What is the purpose of the human being? What is the purpose of our society? What are our obligations to one another in God’s eyes?” To me, those are the most important things. Those are things that people miss.
FWI: After the Qur’an, were there any other books that helped you on your journey?
The most important book that I read was The Failure of Political Islam by Olivier Roy, a critical book for me clarifying so much about what was wrong with modern Islamist movements and how they had gone off the rails.
Another book was The Crisis of Modern Islam by Bassam Tibi. What it said was resonant with Roy’s analysis of the defensiveness of the contemporary Muslim worldview, which negates creativity, dynamism and revival. But I disagree with Tibi in that he seemed to posit liberalism as an alternative. Another book is Fundamentalism, Sectarianism, and Revolution: The Jacobin Dimension of Modernity, by S.N. Eisenstadt. That was critical book for me. Another is Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern by John Gray. Those books helped me clarify to me what Islamism, where it differs from traditional Islam and how it’s really a function of modernity.
Islamism as a Modernist Movement
You mentioned the term Islamism. It’s often used in a way that’s ambiguous. But it also describes a real phenomenon. Many of the things that are wrong with Islamism have parallel phenomena that arise within Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism. One reason it’s this is so difficult for many people to wrap their heads around is because of the fact that we Islamism is such a function of modernity and such a product of modernity, and we live in modernity. 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.”
These are age old heresies, but they’re secularized versions of these heresies. For example, there’s a sect called the Kharijites who declared everyone else to be apostates except for their little group. This is a tendency of the human heart. It’s not merely a historical phenomenon, this is the Jacobin disease.
Islamism v. Islam
FWI: When you talk about Islamism as a function of modernity, you’re saying an awful lot of what Daniel Pipes has said — Islamism is a modern political movement that his rooted in Islam but distinct from it. In the annals of the Middle East Forum, we remember some of the things that you said about him in the early 2000s. I don’t know if you remember what you said.
Ismail Royer: I remember. Yeah. (Ruefully.)
FWI: All right. Okay. But in your more recent writings, like the essay that you wrote in 2017, “Islam or Islamist Extremism,” you posited an idea that sounds an awful lot like what Daniel Pipes has been proclaiming — that there’s a difference between Islam and Islamism and that Muslims are the ones who are going have to defeat Islamism. Something happened where you went from being a critic of Daniel Pipes, to having gone down the same intellectual path he has.
Ismail Royer: It’s simply undeniable that there is a rupture that occurs in modernity. You can look at, for example, the Committee of Unity and Progress in Turkey in World War I, where there was a very deliberate decision by these people — who wind up being war criminals in their targeting of the Armenians — in the very late stages of the Ottoman Empire. They deliberately used Islam as a way of propagandizing for the war effort in a way that’s very modern. Likewise, with Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and then Rashid Rida, they reformulate Islam very consciously as a response to modernity. You see in Egypt [in the early 1900s] this idea of Islam as an ideology instead of a religion, as a faith.
Hassan al-Banna [the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood] picked up on this. Then the idea reached places that have already been very heavily converted to modern political ideologies like Communism and socialism and nationalism. Then, when you have the failure of the Arab wars against Israel, there’s this idea “Let’s try a different ideology. Let’s try Islamism. Let’s try Islam.” But at this point, they’ve already lost their connection with traditional Islam. They’ve become highly modernized political actors.
It’s very similar to Action Française with Charles Maurras. Maurras was an atheist, but he develops this idea that “Christianity is what made France great, and so we need to return to that and to a royal, monarchical structure.” But he doesn’t really believe in Christianity. He’s using the faith as a means to achieve what he deems as some sort of lost glory. A lot of people who followed him did believe in Christianity, but they were using Christianity as a means to an end.
This is the reason that the Pope ends up condemning Charles Maurras and Action Française. C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot and others (although Eliot was initially highly influenced by him) saw that when you believe in something, not because it’s true, but because it’s useful for your project, it is a very dangerous inversion of religion. This is what we see happening with Islamism.
FWI: What is the underlying project that people are deploying Islam to achieve?
Ismail Royer: Worldly power. There’s no question about that. In the age of empires, before modernity, there were also competing powers. The Byzantines were competing against the Muslims and so on. You still had that sort of thing going on. It’s not like we had world peace, harmony, and utopia before modern ideologies like Islamism or, for that matter, inversions we see manifesting in other religions. So, it’s not the source of all harm in the world.
That being said, religion plays a crucial role in the functioning of society. When people share a great deal in common on which they agree — a belief in God and the day of judgment — their civilizations and their people can work together. There are prospects for peace, and there are prospects for human flourishing that don’t exist when you have instead a war of all against all. When I say, “war of all against all,” what I mean is that if everyone is working for their own little project and no one really believes in or is oriented towards the divine, then what you have is a recipe for permanent warfare. You lack any common ground or room for consensus.
Many people have rightly cautioned against a utopian vision or belief in a golden age vision of the Mediterranean, Spain, or the Ottoman Empire. But you can see that in this region there emerged a great deal of ferment between the different faiths — even though you have the Reconquista. Immediately after the Reconquista, the new king commissions translations of the Arabic works, which are then sent to Italy. Then Aquinas gets copies of these translations which he writes about in his Summa Theologica where he is agreeing or disagreeing with al Ghazali and Ibn Rushd. And the Christians in Baghdad in the Abbasid period were commissioned to translate Aristotle from Arabic into Greek. Not to mention Maimonides who had been heavily influenced by his presence within the milieu of Islamic tradition. You have Fibonacci learning from Arab mathematicians. We can talk a lot about the bad aspects of what happened, but nevertheless what you have is an ability to grow civilizationally and to benefit from one another. You have this ability to flourish that does not exist after the decline of religion in the Muslim world and elsewhere.
A lot of people would disagree and would ask, “Are you saying that the problem that the Muslim world is dealing with is a lack of religion?” To a lot of people, the problem is too much religion and that the solution is secularism.
I would say no. The Armenian ethnic cleansing or the Balkan wars shortly before that, where Balkan Muslims are being slaughtered, the rise of nationalism, and the replacement of God with the nation and the ethnos, and the demotion of religion from reality itself to merely an element of ethnic identity and an element of what it means to be a member of a particular nation — this is the primary problem. It is a denigration of the truth. It’s hollowing the truth out of religion. It becomes very dangerous and opens up the doors and pathways to ethnic cleansing and genocide that were not seen in eras before that, so we have the Armenian genocide, which really begins this process. The Holocaust, with its racist biology, is merely taking things to the logical conclusion of the of the replacement of God with the state and with the nation.
FWI: We talk about the Armenian genocide lasting from 1915 to 1922. But in The Thirty-Year Genocide, Benny Morris argues that the Armenian genocide was coupled with the mass killings of Greeks and of Assyrian Christians which started in 1894 […]. So not all the mass killings can be attributed just to the Committee for Unity and Progress.
Ismail Royer: Obviously, there were religious and ethnic issues before nationalism. What can be seen is the increased scale and the tone of these tendencies [after nationalism came on the scene.]
FWI: So, it’s on a continuum. It’s not a binary thing,
Ismail Royer: Exactly. So that’s what I see. And this is how it relates to Islamism: If you look at Türkiye, Islam is now a component of what it means to be a Turk. This leaves out in the cold Kurds who are Muslims, but they’re not Turks. They’re speaking a different language. It doesn’t matter anymore that they’re Muslims. And Christians are in a state where they’re not ever going to be recognized as Turks. If you’re a Christian, by definition, you’re a Greek, even if you don’t speak Greek, you get shipped across the border, your village is [depopulated].
It’s not an accident that the people in the CUP are among the originators of this ideal. You can see the intellectual history from the CUP into modern Islamist movements. But they’re not the only contributing strand to that. If you look at Islamism, it’s not only removing God, it’s a collage that cuts out pieces of Islam, the Islamic vocabulary, Islamic history and glues them onto a modern political program and calls that “Islam.” That’s the problem.
Role of Muslims in West
FWI: You seem to think that traditional Islam— without much retooling — can help bring about a restoration of the moral order to Western democracies, which you argue, have been dealing with the aftereffects of the French Revolution that have been reverberating in Europe, and to a lesser extent, the United States and England since the late 18th century. Have I got that right?
Ismail Royer: Yes. In continental Europe, I don’t think there’s much Muslims can do there. Continental Europe is going to need a restoration of Christianity. It’s going to require evangelism by Christians. There’s not a lot there that Muslims can contribute to. Places like France and Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands are just too hostile to the idea of religion at all for Muslims to be able to be part of a mutual restoration of classical political order in Europe. Europe is on a very different trajectory.
America and the United Kingdom are in a different situation because their poleis came about before the French Revolution, and they missed the brunt of the problem. 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. By self-evident, they didn’t mean that this is something that you just have to assume without any kind of proof. What they meant was that is obvious to the reasonable person that God created us and that he created us with certain obligations to one another and created us equal. This is not the state declaring this. This is very critical. This is not the state being the arbiter of truth. This is merely the state declaring its recognition of a truth that pre-exists the state or the nation. For that reason, there remains something to restore.
The First Amendment is not an attempt to annihilate religion from the public sphere. The First Amendment is an attempt to preserve religion and to keep government from interfering with it. It’s not an attempt to say that our law has no connection with divine truth. That idea is a very modern one and a very French interpretation of the Constitution. And it’s very nihilistic.
FWI: You’ve spoken previously about France’s policy of Laicity, which you believe drives religion from the public square. If I got it right, you think it makes government — and not God — the ultimate arbiter and source of ultimate truths that you think can be used to govern a society and help people live together. But the attacks that took place in Paris in 2015, they were perpetrated by Muslims who thought they had the ultimate truth about God and the human condition in their hip pocket. I can see why the French support Laicity. What’s your response?
United States versus France
Ismail Royer: Laicity was not developed in response to the phenomenon of Islamist terror attacks. It was developed as a means of annihilating Christianity, subduing Christianity, and elevating man above God. So, in terms of how to deal with these sort of attacks — France — because it has a secular irreligious orientation, that’s the toolbox it’s going to draw from in its dealing with the problem of Islamist extremism and terrorism.
The way that America deals with Islamism is going to come from a different toolbox. I don’t think it’s unusual or necessarily unreasonable given the premises of the French polity how they deal with it. Clearly, [Islamism and terrorism] must be dealt with in some way, and that’s their way of approaching it. So, it’s really putting the cart before the horse if someone were to say, “Oh, well, they shouldn’t try to attempt to replace the imam of every mosque with a government-approved Imam. They shouldn’t do that.” I know that there’s a problem with Islamist radicalization in France. Nevertheless, I would say replacing the imam with a government-approved imam is not consonant with human flourishing. (Laughs). At the same time, if you’re trying to unwind the problems with laicity, that controversy is not where that process begins.
When you come to America, we don’t have the same kind of problems with this sort of radicalization that France does. There are a few reasons for that. One is geographic, one is historical. America is a situation where no one can really sit around and allow grievances to fester the way that they do in France.
Anwar Al-Awlaki [who was killed by a U.S. drone-strike in 2011] gave a talk trying to convince American Muslims that their neighbors are evil infidels who need to be killed. He argued, “Now I know that you may know this person very well and they say ‘Hi’ to you every morning, and their kids play with your kids, but believe me, that person is really against you.” That message is a hard sell for American Muslims. They’re not ghettoized and there’s a great deal of interaction on a daily level. The average American Muslim is going to say to himself, “I’m going to the mosque and praying, and no one says anything to me about that. I’ve got my kids in an Islamic school and no one has a problem with that. What is the actual problem?” Al-Awlaki was trying hard to get over that hump. He admitted that “I know this is counterintuitive…” almost apologetically.
You don’t have that [level of interaction] in France. It’s a little bit different because number one you have racial grievances. In France, there’s ghettoization that’s happening.
America is not an ethno-state. France is much closer to that. You cannot be an Arab Frenchman. That doesn’t even make any sense. You can be a Turkish-American, but you can’t be a Turkish-German. You’re a German. If you’re a Turk, you’ll never be a German, and your kids will never be Germans. Their grandchildren will never be Germans.
FWI: When I started listening to your interviews and reading your articles, I felt compelled to start reading The Benedict Option by Rod Dreier. That book argues that conservative Christians — the people you want to ally with against secularism in the fight to promote the restoration of a classical order — need to stop fighting “unwinnable political battles” and should instead work on “building communities and institutions and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast and eventually overcome the occupation” of secularism that you seem to think is a problem as well. What do you think?
Ismail Royer: I sympathize with Dreier a lot and I like him. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I like him as a person and I don’t know if Rod would agree with that characterization of him. He’s really one of those who are out there trying to grapple with questions like, “How do we preserve Christianity? How do we preserve traditional religion in the situation we’re in?” I don’t support a drastic withdrawal or giving up on political fights. I think that there are political fights that need to be fought.
But I do agree that you cannot look to government, you can’t look to Supreme Court decisions to solve what are ultimately cultural problems. but I would also say that I don’t agree with the culture war approach. I regret if I sometimes sound like [a culture warrior]. But I really don’t think that it’s helpful strategically, nor is it healthy spiritually. It’s not being a good person to see anyone as someone whom I’m at war with or as an adversary, even like, let’s say Planned Parenthood or any other organization I feel is so deeply harmful an institution. But we have to understand that the people we deeply disagree with, they got to that place for a reason. Everyone, we can assume, truly believes that what they believe is right, and that they’ve gotten there through good intentions. We also have to assume that they’re not stupid. We have to assume that people mean well and that they’re reasonably intelligent and that they are just trying to do the right thing — and find out the right thing. That being the case, we have to persuade people through discussion and debate. That’s what I’m trying to do.
That being said, I’m very opposed to unregulated abortion. I am for most regulations of abortion. I think this is a crucial life matter. This is a human we’re talking about. So, if there’s a way of politically implementing a law that would regulate abortion to the maximum except to save the life of the mother, then I believe in it and I don’t care if anyone agrees or disagrees with that. In that instance, I think that if there’s a way of doing that in a way that is constitutional, within the political system, then it has to be done. We’re talking about life.
That’s the same thing I would say about slavery or about Jim Crow laws or maybe cruelty to animals or destruction of the environment. There are things that cannot wait for us to [change the culture]. But those are really unusual situations.
We must stop seeing our fellow human beings, our fellow Americans, as enemies. For example, I was such a fool in the 1990s and in the early 2000s when I was writing this stuff about Daniel Pipes. I was doing the same thing with Walid Phares and Steven Schwartz, people who I had set up as political opponents or adversaries. I think that’s a huge mistake. A lot of people will say, “Why are you even talking to Middle East Forum?” I believe in talking to everyone.
You mentioned me agreeing with Daniel Pipes. I think that most human beings can agree with (laughs), most other human beings about many things. 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.
Unfortunately, a lot of people say, “Oh, that’s internalized Islamophobia.” (Laughs.) But here’s the thing: The Qur’an talks about the soul who is ever blaming itself. The soul must always be asking, “Where have I gone wrong? What am I doing wrong? What is my mistake here? What is my sin?” The moment that you get away from that and you begin pointing your finger at others, you lose the capacity to renew, you lose the capacity to be dynamic. If this happens on a civilizational scale, it’s a disaster.
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.”
FWI: You seem to argue that Muslims in the United States can play a role in the protection of religious freedom and the restoration of the U.S. republic. What type of support have you gotten in the Muslim community for this? How many Muslims are on board?
Ismail Royer: There’s a paradigm in the Muslim community and paradigms are very difficult to crack. In 2002, I was saying that American Muslim activism was at the crossroads. We were trying to use this hammer of political correctness to win concessions. This is the completely wrong approach. And unfortunately American Muslim activism vis-a-vis the broader society has been almost entirely in the mode of political correctness, victimhood, and victimology. Then we have this disastrous invention or adoption of the term “Islamophobia.”
FWI: You think that the use of that word is disastrous?
Ismail Royer: Yes. “Islamophobia” is a very harmful word for a number of reasons. First, it’s a secularizing term because it treats Islam as an ethnicity instead of a truth claim about the relationship of the creation to the creator. Second, it presumes a victimized status. [“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.
FWI: There’s a controversy at Hamline University in Minnesota where students claimed that they were victimized because a professor showed medieval pictures depictions of Muhammad in an art history class.
Ismail Royer: I think it’s so silly it’s not even worth commenting on. (Laughs). No one should have raised it. Is that something that are Muslims allowed in their faith? To paint a depiction of the prophet? No. But this is not even something to remark about.
FWI: Wasiq Wasiq, one of the people who has written for FWI, has declared, in effect, “Look, the west doesn’t have blasphemy laws and Muslims are going to have to get used to it.” How would you respond to this line of reasoning?
Ismail Royer: First, there are two distinct scenarios. First, someone paints a picture and says, “This is the prophet Muhammad.” Well, no one can paint the Prophet Muhammad or depict him, because no one knows what he looked like well enough to actually paint him. You could draw whatever you wanted to draw [and it wouldn’t be him]. There are some people in the Shiite sect that say, “This is Ali, the cousin of the Prophet.” But we don’t know what Ali looked like, so that’s not actually Ali. It’s more of an icon, like in iconography, which of course is not allowed in Sunni Islam, but that’s what they do. So, when someone displays these medieval pictures by Persians or Turks that are supposedly the Prophet, that’s not the Prophet. It’s iconography, and you’re not allowed to do that. But it’s not blasphemous or something. It’s just that you’re not supposed to do that.
Then you have the question when someone is painting the prophet Muhammad, attempting to represent him, but in a deeply insulting way. This is different [than what happened at Hamline]. It is not even in the same category. When it comes to people who do things like that, I have written that the proper response is to ignore it, because the angry response results in more drawings.
Reason Magazine sponsored a “Draw the Prophet” contest and then South Park responded to these things by creating a cartoon where they depicted the Prophet Muhammad in in a demeaning way. People are trying to get a rise out of Muslims and make some broader point about free speech. If Muslims don’t want more of these controversies, they should just ignore them, and let people do their thing. Also, what can you really accomplish [by responding angrily]? All you’re doing is making Muslims look bad. I don’t see any benefit in responding in any way whatsoever.
But let’s take a look at the Charlie Hebdo situation. This is a magazine that was regularly presenting Jesus, peace be upon him, in a disgusting, disrespectful way, which would actually offend Muslims, too. Why? Because they hate Christianity. They hate religion. They hate everything that is sacred, and they want to denigrate it, and they want to mock it. They’re Voltarian Frenchmen. (Laughs.) There are components of society and there are diseases within our Western civilization which denigrate the sacred. They did this to Muslims. Obviously, they should not do that.
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.”
FWI: How many Muslims do you have on board with the idea that there needs to be an alliance between Christians and Muslims to restore the classical order and to fight to protect religious freedom?
Ismail Royer: As I mentioned, what we’re dealing with is a paradigm that has to be shifted. It’s not easy to shift paradigms. But almost everything that I’ve written, in some way or another, revolves around this concept, either explicitly or implicitly. When I send my articles out and I share them with people, particularly influential thinkers, I get a lot of people saying, “Hey, that was great. I really like that. I love the way that you put that.” But they are not necessarily going to be able to take those steps to arrive at that understanding without me laying out the argument.
I need to continue making these arguments to my community. That’s the other thing. I’m making these arguments to my community. I may publish at Public Discourse, or I may publish in American Conservative, or I may publish in different non-Muslim publications, but I’m also sharing those with my community. I’m also publishing in places like Muslim Matters. I’m doing webinars and I’m doing talks at mosques. I get people coming up to me and saying, “I really like what you’re doing. I like what you’re saying and I’m following you.”
There are people in my close circle, not necessarily close in the sense that I’m friends with them, but intellectually and spiritually, who see where I’m going with this and are ready to go with me there. And then there are people who it is really going to take a long time for me to reach them. I can’t say what influence, ultimately in the end, I’m going to have. I’ll say that I’m not done, and I’ll say that I have plans on further disseminating this idea and trying to change the paradigm.
We can sit and list the paradigm’s elements. One of the elements is an inferiority complex that affects a lot of people of immigrant Muslim backgrounds. And an anxiety about where their position is in American society lends itself to falling into the polarized victimhood mentality that we see our community in.
It also lends itself to throwing in our lot with the left and progressives against conservatives. By the way, I don’t deem conservatives to be all one thing or necessarily as potential allies. There are reasons why secular progressivism has been associated with Muslim political leadership. But if you get down to the level of the mosques, the ordinary people who are coming and going, these are people who are, generally speaking, quite religiously orthodox and socially conservative.
Alliance With Christians
There are a lot of people who will say, “Yeah, I agree with you. But isn’t it kind of politically dangerous to turn on our allies?” I’m not actually saying turn on the ACLU. I’m saying that there are positions that they might take that we can agree with, but they’re not in our inner circle of friends not just strategically, but also in terms of who we are as Muslims. Our friends are Christians, our friends are orthodox Christians and Orthodox Jews. That’s who our friends are. Even if they don’t realize it, even if those orthodox Christians and Orthodox Jews don’t realize it, and even if Muslims don’t realize it.
What I’m trying to do is to get everyone to realize it. Not so that we can go to war against secular people. It’s so that we can persuade secular and irreligious folks that people who believe in God and believe that we’re all created in God’s image — that people who believe they have to do unto others what they would have others do unto them, who believe that they have to be honest and have goodwill towards others and contribute to the common good — have the interest of everyone at heart.
There are some people who will say, “I think that we should be able to have an abortion anytime I want and you guys don’t think I should,” or “I think I should be able to get married to someone of my own sex, and you think I shouldn’t.” There are some places where it’s not going to be easy to get people to understand that we want good for everyone.
FWI: You talk a lot about the freedom for religion, but freedom from religion is important for progressives. On Twitter, you said that law prohibiting sex before marriage is eminently reasonable. A lot of people are going to be suspicious seeing that. Do you really expect such a law to be enforced?
Ismail Royer: There are such laws already. There are laws on the books already. Obviously, they were enforced a lot more in earlier periods of time. There are reasons why the law should enforce certain things that are deemed morality. The idea that law should have nothing to do with morality is not even accepted by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has accepted that a legitimate aim of the law is public morality. Of course, more liberal courts have held that the government’s legitimate aims only go so far when it comes to what they deem to be constitutionally protected liberties — same sex marriage or abortion for example. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that even the court, to this day, continues to recognize public morality as a legitimate government aim. It’s true that community standards change and that law [prohibiting premarital sex] might seem harsh or it might seem out of place. It’s very important to understand that a law that does not resonate with and stem from the culture is not going to be very enforceable and is going to be seen as harsh and illegitimate.
There was a time when sex before marriage was seen as something that was not proper and it would just be intuitive that there would be a law prohibiting it. But when we live in a time when it’s even controversial whether abstinence should be taught in schools, then that’s something that would be more controversial. But in the abstract, you don’t even have to be religious to understand that marriage is a very important thing, a very important institution, and has a very central function in society. I don’t see that itself as being particularly controversial. We could just go back to the founding fathers and see what the laws were on sex before marriage. (Laughs.)
Muslims Defending American Civilization
FWI: One of the things that I’m reminded of is what happened in Iran. There was an alliance between secularists and Islamists who wanted the Shah removed from power, but when the revolution was successful, Islamists turned on their erstwhile secularist allies. How we do know we’re not going to see some sort of Islamist supremacism come back into fray after there is some measure of success in restoring the moral order given what has happened in Muslim-majority countries?
Ismail Royer: 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.
I would like to see a restoration of those principles, particularly with respect to questions like, “What is the nature of the human person? What is the aim of the human person?” — “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What did happiness mean when Jefferson wrote that? Blackstone addressed this issue. It meant virtue. It meant pursuit of a pursuit of the good. Also, the notion of every human being created in the image of God, we agree with that. The notion of all of us being created equal, we agree with that. We believe in the day of judgment, that we all have to answer for our actions, which the founding fathers believed was critical to the the survival of the republic. All of this moral and spiritual substance which was present at the founding — which was presumed by our founding documents — we agree with all that, and we want to see it restored.
I’m not interested in power for Muslims. This really underlies the distinction between Islamism and what I believe, which I would say is classical Islam. Look at the way the Muslims fled to Ethiopia, during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, there was a Christian King. The companions of the Prophet they said that while they were in Ethiopia, “We had no problems practicing our religion. We lived under this just king.”
I see America as being a potential Ethiopia [where a Christian king dealt justly with Muhammad 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.
Replace the Nones
FWI: In a recent interview you argued that Christians in the United States should work to bring more like-minded Christians into the country to help them win the culture war against the secularists who are dominating public life.
Ismail Royer: Right.
FWI: You said that if you were Christian you would focus on bringing people who attend church regularly into the country because if you want to restore American political order grounded in the truth of God, we need to replace the, the nones, the people of no religious affiliation that are being generated by the revolutionary disease of the soul which was unleashed by the French Revolution. Is that setting us up for our own version of the 100 Years War?
Ismail Royer: Cultural conflict is a very dangerous thing and should be avoided. It really, really has to be avoided. I think we’re on a very bad dangerous trajectory in our country. We should take every opportunity to take the temperature down except in drastic situations, like when it comes to abortion. I would probably say abortion is the only situation which would justify a kind of power move of the type that conservatives did in fact pull by sucking it up and holding their noses and supporting Trump. In many cases, people who were really against Trump, they went ahead and accepted him because they knew that he was going to listen to them when it came to Supreme Court picks. That was the only way they were going to get Roe v. Wade overturned. Yes, that was some power move maneuvering that I am glad happened because I agree with the Dobbs decision.
But generally speaking, I don’t believe in cultural conflict. What I do believe I’ll illustrate with an example. Last year, I went to my son’s graduation in Annadale High School in Northern Virginia. The class president stood up and made an announcement that he was introducing the keynote speaker. He’s speaking to a 90 percent, maybe 85 percent Hispanic student body. He made an announcement: “I just want you guys to know that America was not founded for you. It was founded for white people. This speaker was a second or third generation Vietnamese immigrant. His parents were Vietnamese. This is a person who has no faith in America and in fact is just empirically wrong about what the country is about. Neither he nor any other speaker who spoke mentioned God at all. Then he introduces the keynote speaker.
He was an El Salvadoran immigrant who started in America working at McDonald’s. He needed to learn English to be a good worker at McDonald’s, so he went to Annadale High School, to their English as a second language program, and learned English pretty well. He then began tutoring English. Eventually, he quit McDonald’s and became a teacher at the school.
It’s easy to see why they would pick him as the keynote, because from that kind of “woke” perspective, this is the guy. But on the other hand, it really is the American story. So, this man gets up there and he speaks in English and Spanish. This is going to offend the Samuel Huntington types who would ask “How dare he speak in Spanish?” — but this is what he said after he praised his family:
I thank God that I came to America, this great land that gave me this opportunity. I did this because I promised my fiancé, who I met at McDonald’s, that I would buy her a wedding dress. This is why I strove to better myself, to get a job and to learn English. And I’m grateful to Annadale High School and the state of Virginia for allowing me to come here, this peasant from El Salvador.
I’ll tell you what. The folks who put him up there thinking he was going to sell their “woke” message, were really actually (laughs) visibly irritated, on their faces, at all of this.
We need more people like this. Anyone who lives in Northern Virginia or areas with large immigrant populations knows folks like this. I used to have a family living above me in my apartment in Alexandria, and we had a new baby at the time. These folks would have a Pentecostal revival every Thursday night in their apartment. (Laughs.) Like clockwork on Thursday at 8 p.m. they’d have their service. They had a PA system. It was quite outlandish. At first, I would be irritated by it, but then I thought about it and said to myself, “These folks are really good people and they’re praying to God.” Yes, it was annoying for half an hour, but it didn’t go on all night. It was very brief. I came to realize this is actually something good.
If we can increase in America the people who are going to church and the people who are raising families — getting married and having kids and having grandkids and bringing with them traditions that we used to have — that used to be normal — that are now kind of seen as passe (marriage is seen as something bad by a lot of people and it’s seen part of the patriarchy) I think that we can begin to tip the scales back toward an appreciation of those values. That’s what I meant.
Muslim Nonprofits in United States
FWI: What do you say to people who might be inclined to kind of view the presence of, of Muslims here in the United States through the actions of organizations like Islamic Circle of North America, Muslim American Society who have featured speakers who have promoted violence and hostility towards Jews and homosexuals and sometimes have used traditional Islamic sources to do that. Or CAIR, whose leader eulogized Yusef al-Qaradawi. How should non-Muslims and Muslims respond?
Ismail Royer: These organizations have formed the foundation of Islam in America in many ways through their activism, through all that they’ve done. There’s a lot of things that I would change and there’s a lot of things that they’ve done that are good. It’s very hard for me to say that we should just throw the baby out with the bathwater with these organizations. It’s also the case that a lot of them have moved on. If you look at ISNA, it is by no stretch of the imagination a Muslim Brotherhood organization [today].
There has to be recognition that there are legacy organizations that may have had origins [in the Muslim Brotherhood] and evolved. A lot of that comes out through the internal memoranda that have been released in court documents. You see this sort of internal transition that happens between people who are official Muslim Brotherhood folks and then other people taking their place. There’s concern and worry from these Muslim Brotherhood folks about these new people coming in. “They’re not from the movement.” It happens because of turnover and evolution.
Just by virtue of existing in America, a lot of these organizations are not the same organizations that they were. We also have to acknowledge that not everything these organizations have done is bad so that there’s no redeeming qualities that remain. We can advise them in terms of the things that are negative.
There are some actual crazy people like this Islamic Thinkers Society [which seeks to restore the caliphate]. They’re like 10 people in New York. These kinds of people, they’re just beyond the pale. But no one is going to an ISNA conference and getting radicalized. Even if you have a few speakers saying bad things, no one is going in and then leaving there and blowing stuff up.
FWI: Is there a point where groups like CAIR and ICNA are going to say, “Look, we had our roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, but we no longer consider ourselves part of the movement”?
Ismail Royer: You can see it even in CAIR. CAIR was very clearly founded to have a very strong orientation toward the Palestinian cause. They surprised a lot of people early on by veering pretty drastically into civil rights stuff. I think they annoyed a lot of people who originally wanted them to be “Palestine Central.” Even though they have, throughout the years, continued to voice support for their position on Palestine, it’s not the main focus of what they’re doing. I understand that has been interpreted as, “Well, that just shows how clever they are in concealing their actual approach.” But in reality, I think it reflects — and I can say this as someone who worked there — how the momentum and other forces in the American Muslim community quickly led CAIR into a direction that they did not originally intend.
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.
I don’t like to throw rocks. I like to advise internally. But I have written publicly that the biggest problem with CAIR’s approach is not having shifted course away from the marginalized group mentality and towards a cooperate-for-the-greater-good mentality. That has been the most unhelpful approach. And along with that, they have also done a lot of good.
America as Ethiopia
FWI: There are some Muslims in the West, Europe especially, who see themselves as part of a leading edge of an Islamist takeover. That arouses concern on the part of non-Muslims. Can we expect to see Muslims police themselves or counter that ideology in the future?
Ismail Royer: Europe is in very different situation from America. But anyone who thinks they are part of an Islamist vanguard is utterly delusional. Utterly delusional. It’s a crackpot, delusional idea.
Our place, our role, our function in America and in the West, is to cooperate for the common good. There’s a hadith of the Prophet who said that faith has 77 branches. The highest of them is to say, “There is no God, but God,” and the lowest of them is to remove a branch from the road. Removing a branch from the road is good for everyone. It’s not good just for Muslims who might be traveling down the road. It’s good for Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, anyone who travels down the road. You want good for everyone.
And there’s a hadith [saying of Muhammad] that says you are not a believer until you want for your brother what you want for yourself. One scholar said of this hadith that “brother” means not “brother Muslim,” it means brother in humanity. There are many, many hadiths like this. We want good for everyone. That’s our role. Our role in America is to make it a better place and of course to practice our faith. As long as we can practice our faith, we should be grateful to be here and feel a sense of duty We’re not focused on “What rights do people owe me.” People are owed rights. All of us have rights. We have rights under the law, and we have rights that transcend the law, but we have duties as well that are part of the law and that transcend the law.
Our focus should be on the duties that we owe to our neighbors, to our families, to ourselves. That needs to be our focus, not some kind of lunatic idea of taking over. I don’t know how many people actually believe that. I don’t think I’ve met too many people, even in America. In America this is not a common idea (Laughs.). This is not a common notion.
FWI: Thanks so much for this interview.
Ismail Royer: Thank you.