Wahhabi Who?

The strange case of Ismail Royer


So far, just one person seems relieved that Ismail Royer, former civil rights coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations and an active blogger and essayist, was one of the "Paintball 11," the group of D.C.-area men arrested last week on charges of violating the Neutrality Act of the United States Code. That person would be Stephen Schwartz, a Muslim convert, pundit, and author of The Two Faces of Islam, who used a column in FrontPage to paint Royer as a Wahhabi extremist and link him to Schwartz' own archenemies like Keith Sorel and Antiwar.com's colorful polemicist Justin Raimondo.

With names like these involved, it should already be clear that Royer's case is one sensible people might want to avoid. Schwartz is a frequently interesting commentator who believes every American washroom is breeding Wahhabists; he and his detractors take turns writing increasingly cartoonish essays about each other.

But there is something disturbing in seeing Royer named as a ringleader of a group of militant mujahideen. In a televised press conference last week, Paul McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, announced the 11 men—nine of them American citizens—had been indicted in a conspiracy to wage "violent jihad overseas." As post-9/11 roundups go, this one isn't the biggest or the most exciting, but it's certainly one of the strangest. For several months before last week's arrests, the feds had been fairly openly watching the 11 suspects (one of whom has already been ordered released by a district court judge).

The defendants are charged with conspiracy, commencing an expedition against a friendly nation, and various weapons violations—the weapons charges being the only ones that carry any prospect for serious jail time. (Neutrality Act violations—on which the conspiracy and weapons charges seem to be contingent, if I'm reading the indictment correctly—merit a maximum of three years.) At issue: the defendants' alleged support, training and recruitment for Lashkar-e-Taiba, (LET) a Pakistani militant group engaged in the fight with India over Kashmir; LET was designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization in December, 2001.

There are various questions to be raised about the indictments. (Among them: Is paintball a fitting substitute for Basic Training?) The invocation of the archaic Neutrality Act—most of the charges involve actions taken before the LET was named as a terrorist group—has inspired tendentious but not inapt comparisons to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the French Foreign Legion.

For me, the real mystery is the involvement of Ismail (Randall Todd) Royer, whose prior writings give little indication that he was a jihadist. Among his articles: A plea to respect religion in the public square. A call for détente between Islam and the West. An article urging Muslims to avoid wallowing in victimization. All outspoken articles, but pretty far from militancy. Royer is a co-editor of ATrueWord.com, a site that aims "to actively engage the non-Muslim world in a constructive and honest dialogue of ideas." (Its content, I think, fell somewhat short of that goal.)

My own contact with Royer has been limited to a few emails: He said he liked my "E Pluribus Umbrage" article, plugged a few pieces of his own, and asked for comment on the "public square" article mentioned above—which seemed reasonable even though I disagreed with it. Until last week, I'd have named Royer as somebody presenting the kind of moderate Islamic point of view everybody claims to want to hear.

I'm still not sure I should be revising that view. "His moderate views are not just something that he's prepared for this situation," Ashraf Nubani, a Virginia attorney who is advising Royer, says in a phone interview. "These are opinions he has been saying in public for ten years." In an excellent profile of Royer in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Karen Branch-Brioso gets at some of the ambiguity in Royer's story: A convert to Islam initially attracted by the faith's promise of racial harmony, he has spent most of the eleven years since his conversion courting controversy. Most spectacularly, he journeyed to Bosnia in 1994 to fight the Serbs—another action, ironically, that could theoretically have been prosecuted under the Neutrality Act.

Little of Royer's moderate side came through during the FBI investigation. Speaking to the Washington Post he took refuge in a familiar invidious comparison: "Ooooh gosh, they have weapons," he said. "I really resent the idea that a Muslim with a gun, he's a threat. A Jew with a gun, he's not a threat."

Not surprisingly, Ramon Royer, the accused ringleader's father, sees a weak case for the government. "This is all because they needed something to hang their case on," he says. "They spent a lot of money on this and they don't want to walk away empty-handed." Nevertheless, the elder Royer, who voted for Bush, supported the invasion of Iraq and sounds as all-American as Jimmy Stewart on the phone, may not be completely off base. All but one of the weapons named in the case, for example, were apparently legally purchased and owned. (The other one involved a suspect in the U.S. on a diplomatic visa, which is not valid for gun purchases.) The nearly immediate release of one of the suspects doesn't bode well for the government's case. Even if the case proves out, a violation of an obscure 1917 law seems considerably less momentous than talk of a "violent jihad" promised. (Since when do federal prosecutors use Islamic terms of art anyway?)

Still, Royer's own story looks more than a little fishy. Who uses an AK-47 to hunt? And why, if his affiliations with LET members were innocent, didn't he acknowledge them when he mentioned the group on his web log? And why did Royer, who last fall wrote, "[I]t's simply not the case that, relatively speaking, Muslims in America have suffered to any great degree," nevertheless feel the need to flee the country after the September 11 attacks? ("I just didn't like the direction this was all headed, so I was just like, 'Let me get the heck out of here,'" is how Royer describes his post-9/11 return to Bosnia.) None of this is probative, or even indicative, of any wrongdoing, but it tends to dim the impression of a moderate Muslim in search of common ground.

In our conversation, the elder Royer adds another wrinkle: A few years back, he rented a spare room to Ziyad Khalil, who later gained fame for providing al Qaeda with a cell phone. (According to Royer, he also split owing some rent.) It's a pretty bizarre coincidence, given his son's predicament, but Royer notes that most of the students he's rented to have been Muslims. "It's because I happen to be interested in what other people have to say," he says, "but it got me in some trouble." For a guy living quietly in Missouri to end up with a terrorist-connected tenant and a son facing charges of international jihad has a certain wheels-within-wheels quality. More likely it's a couple of strange coincidences. Or maybe just the chain of links and ties that grow up when your life includes a certain variety of politically engaged Muslims.

Asked how he felt about his son's conversion, Ramon Royer, a Baptist, replies, "I treat religion as a very personal thing." It's a healthy sentiment, but how true is it? His son's religious conversion brought about a shift in political activity that seems unlikely to end in a serious criminal conviction, but went well beyond praying and attending the local mosque. There are few things in life less innocent than a religious conversion. For all the questions Ismail Royer's case raises about prosecution and circumstance, extremism and moderation, perception and reality, the most important may be whether religious belief should ever be considered politically neutral.