Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (which describes its mission as advocating for “the preservation of the founding principles of the United States Constitution, liberty and freedom”), may be the most important American Muslim you never heard of. He doesn’t, as leaders of groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations do, spend his time accusing his fellow citizens of Islamophobia. He doesn’t serve as a mouthpiece for the Palestinian Authority. (Instead he describes himself as “pro-Israel.”) And he certainly doesn’t buy the idea that radical Islam is irrelevant to the war on terror. Moreover, he heads an organization dedicated to “confronting the ideologies of political Islam and openly countering the common belief that the Muslim faith is inextricably rooted to the concept of the Islamic State (Islamism).” For all these reasons he may also be the most vilified American Muslim.

As I reported, he appeared Wednesday on a panel at the Heritage Foundation discussing the battle he thinks needs to go on within Islam, not with guns but with reason. Zuhdi is laboring to reaffirm the separation of mosque and state and to push back against a cult of victimology that perceives every security measure or public debate (whether about how Muslims get radicalized or whether to put a mosque near Ground Zero) as Islamophobia. I found his message so at odds with what we hear daily from self-appointed representatives of the Muslim community I wanted to hear more about his own story and his effort to reclaim liberty as a principal value for Muslim youth.

We met Friday morning. Syria has been the newest hot spot in the Arab Spring, but for Zuhdi, a doctor living in Phoenix, Syria is his family’s homeland, as well as home to slews of families whom his family has known for generations. His parents were both born in Syria and met in medical school. He tells me, “My dad was very political,” following in the footsteps of his grandfather, for whom Zuhdi is named. His grandfather in the 1950s and ’60s was an influential democracy advocate, in and out of prison and subject to house arrest for his efforts to preserve the nascent democracy in Syria after the French departed. (Because of his grandfather’s role, Zuhdi says, “I could never go back to Syria.” Well, under the Assad regime.) Zuhdi’s father refused to serve in the Syrian regime’s military, escaped with his wife to Lebanon and eventually came to Ohio. Zuhdi was born and grew up in Wisconsin.

But it is that connection to Syria that makes the recent crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad so personal. He admits tearing up when seeing the news of more killings by the Assad regime. Still, he says, “I am an optimist.” In the past Syrian begged him not to be outspoken about the regime, for fear of reprisals. Now, he says with a grin, “I’ve been unleashed” to talk about the regime and call attention to what he calls “one of the most repressive regimes in the world.” For those in Syria, he tells me, the protests “are not going away. It’s a one way street.”

He has admiring words for the efforts by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) (“He was the first one to call for Assad to go.”). These senators are highlighting Assad’s atrocities, demanding sanctions and calling for an accounting of the massacres. It works, he says. He refer to the most recent news reports, telling me that Assad on Friday “finally said they will no longer use bullets on demonstrators.” He notes that this is a telling admission that bullets had been used. (On Friday Assad also promised to hold a “national dialogue,” another sign he is beginning to feel the heat from international pressure.)

He is not so complimentary about the Obama administration. He says, “It seems that the more benevolent [a Muslim regime], the more pushing there is. The more immoral and anti-American, the less pushback.” This stems, he says, from “a weakness in standing up for American principles.” The Obama administration, he tells me, is “misguided” in its desire to “keep enemies close.”

As to what the United States can do, he says, “No one is talking about military action.” Still, there is plenty the administration could do, he argues. He is a member of Save Syria Now!, a group of Americans of Syrian descent. Its Web site describes the group’s mission: “to put pressure on the United States to call for immediate action to be taken against the regime of Bashar Assad of Syria and to bring true liberty to the people of Syria. We stand with the Syrians protesting in the streets to end the tyranny of the Assad family.” He tells me that it’s critical to demand that Western media be let into Syria for extended periods so that more than the Assad propaganda line comes through. “The main thing is to shine the light of day on the demonstrators,” he contends. If the demonstrations are “broadcast globally,” he thinks, Assad will be restrained in the use of force and the demonstrations will continue to build.

Zuhdi argues that it is not all that complicated or difficult. America needs to be “forthright and strong against the regime.” He points to the example of Natan Sharansky. “He knew that when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the ‘evil empire’ that he’d get out.” It is that role of international leadership that is missing, he argues. He says it stems both from an “appeasement mentality” and lack of understanding as to how brutal is the regime. “We’re at 800 dead now and thousands in prison.” He firmly believes that once the U.S. government says that Assad must go, that will seal Assad’s fate.

In part 2, Zuhdi talks about the American Muslim community, the theological response to Islamism and his efforts to foster a pro-American, pro-Constitution movement among Muslim youth.