“We must be able to put Islam into an American context,” he declared.
It’s a noble sentiment, but one that not all Americans accept at face value.
Unus has spent 40 years building some of the country’s best-known Muslim organizations, but the past decade has driven home how unsettled the relationship remains between his faith and his country. And few places are more emblematic of that tension than the library of the Herndon think tank where he works.
More than nine years ago, federal agents looking for evidence of terrorism financing hustled Unus, the institute’s director of administration, and his colleagues into this very library. They were kept there for hours while computers and boxes of documents were carted out.
At almost the same time, 14 agents and police officers broke through the front door of Unus’s house with a battering ram and handcuffed his wife and daughter — a raid that sparked an unsuccessful civil rights lawsuit that the Unuses pursued all the way to the Supreme Court.
Neither Unus nor any other institute leaders has ever been charged in the government’s probe of a network of Herndon-based Muslim charities, businesses and organizations. But neither have they been formally cleared.
Unus has been wedged in an uncomfortable limbo ever since — a predicament that resonates with many Muslims who have encountered scrutiny and distrust in the years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Sympathizers see Unus as a founding father of American Islam whose rights and reputation were trampled by overzealous investigators. Others have never stopped voicing doubts about his loyalties and motives and those of the organizations he’s led.
A start in the ’70s
The associations that have made Unus an object of suspicion date back four decades, to his days as a student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
After arriving from Pakistan in 1970 to study physics, he helped launch what are still two of the country’s largest Muslim groups, the Muslim Students Association and the Islamic Society of North America.
There was controversy connected to both groups from the start. The organizations, funded with money from Saudi Arabia, were believed by many to have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that was focused in the 1970s on freeing Muslims from Western influence.
Early student association leaders such as Jamal Barzinji — now president of the think tank where Unus works — condemned Muslim leaders for striving to adopt an alien, Western worldview that “is in total denial of revelation as the source of guidance and knowledge.” Islam needed to create its own modern economics, psychology and art, he and others argued.
The institute, which was founded in 1981 with about $8 million from a Saudi family, was meant to be the movement’s intellectual backbone.
Asked to describe their goals back then, Unus said they were trying to figure out why the Muslim world was mired in poverty, “why Muslims were having trouble fully contributing to contemporary culture.”
But some consider that description misleading. They say the words of Barzinji and others are incompatible with Western democracy.
Zuhdi Jasser, who recently founded the American Islamic Forum for Democracy to challenge the ideology of the more established U.S. Muslim groups, dismissed their interfaith work and prodemocracy declarations as “intellectual jujitsu.” Such groups won’t acknowledge the contradictions between their Islamist interpretations of the Koran and equal rights for women and non-Muslims, he said.
“The vehicle is still Islam,” said Jasser, a Muslim doctor whose views have been embraced by conservatives. “And that’s not America.”
Steven Emerson, one of the country’s most vociferous critics of the major U.S. Muslim groups, said the institute’s real goal is the subversion of American institutions.
He noted the connections between the institute and Muslim radicals, including Abdurahman Alamoudi, a onetime State Department consultant who pleaded guilty to plotting with Libya to assassinate the ruler of Saudi Arabia, and Sami al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida who pleaded guilty to aiding a terror organization.
Unus, who became a U.S. citizen 30 years ago, denied that he or the groups he’s been involved with support terrorists or radicals in any way.
He acknowledged that some of the language Muslim immigrant leaders used early on reflected a “very insular worldview, not language that was appropriate in a multicultural, pluralistic environment.” But he said that was more a product of naiveté and enthusiasm for spreading values that they eventually came to realize are not unique to Islam.
There is no plan to subvert American institutions, nor do U.S. Muslim organizations harbor hopes of Islamicizing the country, Unus said.
“I don’t think any Muslim leader has any hope of the United States being anything but a democratic system,” he said. Muslims in other parts of the world aspire to adopt American-style democracy, he pointed out. “That’s what this Arab Spring is all about.”
Unus hardly looks the part of a Rorschach test on the aims of American Islam.
He’s a small, scholarly man with a soft voice and graying wreath of beard who wears tailored suits and drives a Buick. He shakes women’s hands — a no-no, in the view of many conservative Muslims — because that’s what people here do.
“He’s more American than anything else,” said John Voll, an Islamic history professor at Georgetown University who has known Unus for years. In fact, Unus never once returned to Pakistan.
But after years of scrutiny, Unus is also guarded, carefully weighing his words and avoiding potentially controversial subjects such as Israel or U.S. foreign policy. His five U.S.-born daughters were off-limits for interviews. He wouldn’t agree to be photographed at his home.
His reticence can be traced to a winter day more than nine years ago.
Handcuffed for hours
When the agents pounded on the front door, Unus’s wife, Aysha, was in a sunken living room in the back of their home on Rock Ridge Road in Herndon.
At first, she thought it was the delivery of a refrigerator. She said she was terrified when she spotted black jackets and drawn rifles through a window. It was March 20, 2002, little more than six months after the Pentagon had burned and the Twin Towers had crumbled.
She screamed to her daughter, Haana, then 18, who rushed downstairs to call 911. Then the front door came down.
“You could hear [the agents] break something, the wood or whatever, and they just came storming in,” Haana Unus recounted in court documents. “It was a bunch of them, and one of them had a gun . . . pointed at me, and he was yelling at me to drop the phone and put my hands up.”
The women said their hands were cuffed behind their backs and they were led to a couch. Other than bathroom breaks, they were kept there for four hours.
They weren’t aware that agents were fanning through the hallways of the institute and 18 other Muslim homes, charities and businesses, searching for evidence of what they believed was a major terrorism funding network.
Even now, Aysha Unus, 63, a tiny woman in a white, gold and navy head scarf and tunic, describes what happened that day only reluctantly.
Agents denied their plea to let them cover their hair in front of unfamiliar men. They said officers would not initially show them a search warrant, accused Mrs. Unus of having a fake driver’s license and asked the women — both U.S. citizens — if these American police weren’t “better than yours.”
Multiple efforts to speak with current and former U.S. agents who conducted the raids were unsuccessful. A Justice Department spokesman said he couldn’t comment because the terrorism financing probe remains open.
In court documents, the agents said they identified themselves through the front door and watched Aysha Unus run the other way. And an affidavit unsealed in 2003 laid out what a Homeland Security agent described as “evidence of the transfer of large amounts of funds” to terrorist organizations by the institute and other Herndon-based Muslim groups.
But even within the government, the raids were controversial. Dennis Lormel, who headed the FBI’s terrorist financing operations section at the time and is now a private consultant, said he refused to let his agents participate alongside those from U.S. Customs and other agencies because he didn’t believe the evidence was strong enough.
“Unfortunately,” Lormel said, the targets “were maligned by that investigation, and quite frankly I think that investigation should never have happened.”
Other officials maintain the investigation led to several indictments and the conviction of Alamoudi. But Nancy Luque, a lawyer who represents the Unuses and the other Muslims targeted by the raids, disputes that.
“No evidence of wrongdoing was ever found,” she said. “Every single thing they took was returned, and it was never used in court as evidence against anyone.”
As for the legality of the raids, the courts sided with the government.
The raids “must have been a harrowing experience” for the Unus family, a federal appeals panel concluded in 2009. But considering what agents believed to be in the house, they acted legally, the judges ruled in a 46-page opinion. (The decision notes that Iqbal Unus “was not suspected of committing any crimes.”)
Unus himself talks about the raids with a practiced distance. He always tells the same story, about the stranger who was waiting at the institute’s doorstep the next day with flowers and sympathy. It was reminiscent, he said, of the outpouring of support from neighbors and local leaders after Sept. 11.
“Even now the news stories that dominate about Muslims are about this whole thing of Islamophobia and people burning the Koran, but these are extreme minorities,” he said. “There are a lot of people who want to develop relationships and create peace.”
Still, the impact of that day loomed over the household.
Hanaa barely ate, couldn’t sleep and was afraid to leave her mother alone. Aysha still startles at a knock on the door.
“This is the worst thing,” she said. “America says you’re safe in your own home, but now I know that’s not true.”
She couldn’t bear the sight of the couch where she and Hanaa had sat in handcuffs, so the Unuses got rid it.
The family decided to fix but not replace the front door. In case someone breaks it down again.
A few days before the start of Ramadan, dozens of Muslim teenagers streamed into a community room at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, Unus’s mosque, to be recognized for completing a three-day leadership seminar. The boys sat on one side of the room, the girls on the other, as a parade of speakers lauded their ambitions and achievements.
Yet even here, the outside world’s fears about American Muslims intruded. A few of the speakers were government officials who didn’t want to be publicly identified, as if their mere presence at a mosque could stir critics.
“The antipathy people have toward your community is higher than it’s been in years,” one official warned the teens. “You can’t run away from that. If you’re not speaking up, people will talk about you, they won’t talk to you.”
Unus listened from the boy’s section, sitting alongside high school students already leading organizations, winning academic awards and speaking like pros before crowds of adults.
They are the kind of go-getters he has struggled to recruit to his fledgling imam-training program, which was launched last year in partnership with Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
The first year’s class had only 10 people, a reflection of the lack of pay and prestige typically accorded imams in the United States. But the first graduate from an accredited U.S. program marched across Hartford’s stage earlier this summer.
Unus believes more will follow, just as he believes that the young people gathered at ADAMS will alter public perceptions of Islam. A decade of suspicion hasn’t shaken that faith.