By Ismail Royer
When I was young my mother had a close friend from Cyprus. I grew up hearing her tell horrifying stories of the Turks’ invasion of her home. This woman was very beloved to me. When I told her in 1992 I had become a Muslim, the look of shock and anger on her face was hard to bear. “No, Randy, no!” she wailed. She had known me since I was in my mother’s womb. I knew I had let her down, sold her out, betrayed her.
I fought in Bosnia in 1995 as a volunteer with an Arab brigade. Most of the brothers accepted me without question, especially after I’d been taking fire with them on the front lines. Some didn’t accept me, though. There were a few who left our brigade or refused to join it because there was an American with them. Despite the love I felt from other brothers, the fury and suspicion that twisted their faces when they looked at me was painful.
In August 2001 I found myself in the middle of a vicious debate on a Muslim listserv, an early version of social media. I was taking a lot of heat for criticizing Al Qaeda, though many supported me as well. After I blasted Ayman Al-Zawaahiri and his “retarded fatwa,” one brother accused me of being a “Zionist agent.” Two years later, I was indicted in federal court for treason and other offenses related to, among other things, an alleged conspiracy to support Al Qaeda.
I pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was initially sent to the general population of a medium security prison. On going to the chow hall for the first time, I saw that here were two lines: one for black inmates, and one for white and Hispanic inmates. There were also black and white sides of the chow hall. Because the Muslims were nearly all black and sat on the black side, I faced a choice. Do I get in the white line and sit on the white side, thereby angering the Muslims? Or do I get in the black line and sit on the black side, thereby angering the whites? My choice would determine my social status in prison: sit with the whites and I would be a white guy whose religion happened to be Islam; or sit with the blacks and be a white guy who wanted to be black. I sat with the blacks because I didn’t want to offend the Muslims, and on the theory that I put my religion before my ethnicity. I paid for it: white guys generally shunned me and called me “wigger” under their breaths.
I had some close companions from the Muslims at that prison. The inmate leader of the Muslims even asked me to lead Friday Jumuah prayers and give the khutba, or sermon, once a month. One day he went to the hole, and since now there was no one but me who knew how to lead Jumuah prayers, I started doing them every week. But there was dissent in the ranks. Eventually, a group of Muslim inmates approached me and told me of the complaints: the brothers had white prison guards telling them what to do all week; they didn’t want to come to Jumuah and hear another white guy telling them what to do.
Shortly thereafter the Federal Bureau of Prisons decided to remove all inmates it classified as terrorists from the general prison population and move them to either ADX, the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, or a so-called Communication Management Unit (CMU), a secretive unit created to house inmates with terrorism cases. In 2006 I was sent to a CMU in Terre Haute, Indiana, and in 2010 I was sent to ADX.
When I arrived in ADX I was placed in solitary confinement. The inmate in the cell next to me, apparently a white guy, yelled at me through the door, asking where I was from and what my name was. When I told him “Ismail,” he yelled, “Are you a Muslim?” “Yeah,” I yelled. “I became a Muslim in 1992.” The guy started rhythmically banging and kicking on the wall of his cell, screaming, “Race traitor! We’re at war with Islam!” over and over. For hours. For days.
In 2015 my beloved mother died. Her old friend from Cyprus refused to attend her funeral. By then she hadn’t spoken to my mother for many years.
I got out of prison in December 2016 after nearly fourteen years. I’m on the terrorist no-fly list, but I recently got permission to fly. It’s unnecessary to describe all the extraordinary security procedures I went through at the airport, but it included being followed and filmed by large plainclothes officers as I went from check-in in to the gate. Appropriately so, many readers will say, and you’re probably right.
The reason I flew was to attend a forum at the University of Southern California, where I discussed the nature of extremism and the habits of the heart and mind that can lead to it. Some Muslims don’t appreciate that kind of talk. They think it amounts to a kind of disloyalty. Indeed, it reached me that one brother convicted of terrorism offenses and who’s still in prison is mad at me, even though he’s never met me. He says I was his hero when he was young, but I betrayed him by writing against terrorism after I got to prison. He seems not to realize I was saying the same thing in 2001, and getting the same criticism.
At Jumuah recently I saw a brother I’ve known since 1993. He’s now become a well-known imam and public figure. He takes great pains to maintain his public image as a moderate, which is understandable in this era. He was visibly afraid when I greeted him. I told him, don’t worry brother, there’re no cameras around. He immediately fled anyway, mumbling something. I felt bad for making him feel uncomfortable.
Adjusting to this new world after so long in prison isn’t easy. One thing that has thrown me off is the extreme polarization and hyper-racial, extreme-left bent of the youth, including Muslims. Recently on social media, a young Muslim woman and her followers told me if I want to prove that I am one of the “good” white people, I need to publicly denigrate myself for being white.
I’m not sure who I need to prove what to anymore, or if I knew that, what would be the point.