“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.