Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic studies at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, was the first woman, the first North American and the first convert to be elected president of the Islamic Society of North America, an umbrella group of student and religious groups across the United States and Canada.
She took office last August and has been busy since attempting to explain her faith to Americans suspicious of Islamic fundamentalism in the post-Sept. 11 era and to women who question Islam's teachings on the role of women in society.
A native of Ontario, Canada, Mattson was raised Roman Catholic and attended Catholic schools but left the church as a 15-year-old. She met Muslims for the first time eight years later while studying in France - and was drawn to their faith. This year marks the 20th anniversary of her conversion.
Now 43, Mattson lives in Hartford with her husband, a 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son.
Are you finding a different expression of Islam within North America, as affected by American culture?
There are some things that are maybe different, or the emphasis is a little bit different.
One thing is we have a very diverse community. That's just the demographic reality because Muslims in North America come from all different places. Besides ethnic diversity, that also includes ideological diversity - different schools of thought within Islam.
An imam [Islamic religious leader] in North America has a different role than he does in a Muslim-majority country. In Muslim-majority countries the imam leads prayer and gives religious speeches, gives sermons. In North America, he does a lot of counseling, marriage counseling, helps with families, crisis counseling, and he is the primary point of access for religious knowledge. You converted to Islam two decades ago. In that time, has it become harder or easier to be a Muslim in North America?
When I became a Muslim my family had no idea of what that meant. They didn't know Islam; they didn't know any Muslims. In fact some of them were confused between Hinduism and Islam. "Do you have to be a vegetarian now, and do cows have a special place ... ?" Yeah, so they had no idea, and my family's educated.
Islam was just not really in the news. There had been the Iranian Islamic revolution by then but it wasn't touching our lives in the way it is now.
That's good and bad. People of good will want to know, out of necessity, what Islam is. Many of them give the benefit of the doubt to Muslims - "I think all Muslims can't be crazy fanatics." They'd like to have some information so they can be good neighbors. ...
I have to say it's worse now because of the Iraq war than directly after Sept. 11. I think that many Americans were willing to look at that as an aberration and saw the terrorists were people outside of the country. They understood the Muslim community here generally was patriotic and vulnerable to scapegoating.
But the constant stream of bad news from Iraq, and the presentation of the violence, especially recently, as being somehow motivated by sectarian differences has led to a greater association between Islam and violence.
When you to add that to the commercial media, entertainment media having developed in response to this all of those shows with Muslim terrorists on and the impact that has on the general American and his or her view of Muslims ... There's a prejudgment, a collective judgment of Muslims, and a suspicion that well "you may appear nice, but we know there are sleeper cells of Americans," which of course is not true. There aren't any sleeper cells. But they're all over TV, and in the movies. There's that veil of suspicion that falls over individual Muslims. There are no sleeper cells in the world?
In the world, certainly. I'm not in intelligence ... but it's not the reality of American Islam.
It would be interesting to do a count of how many movies and TV shows have shown some ordinary American Muslim family or Muslims and behind the fa?ade of their neighborliness they're really a sleeper cell. But that hasn't happened in the United States. There has not been any in the six years since Sept. 11, and Sept. 11 itself was committed by foreigners, by people who were not in this country at all. That isn't the reality of the Muslim American community.
What's interesting is the government has recognized that. The head of Homeland Security and FBI and other agencies have actually made statements about the Muslim American community being a significant asset and patriotic and if there's any reality of the Muslim American community it's that so many Muslim Americans have signed up to help the government help to protect their country, I mean our country.
They're not hiding in little places plotting terrorist attacks, so there's a huge distortion of the reality there. Are there some criminals or people plotting things, I have no idea. I hope not; it's always a possibility, but certianly not the proper characterization of the Muslim-Americans. What do non-Muslims need to know about Islam, or fail to understand about Islam?
First of all they need to know that the vast majority of Muslims are not scriptural literalists, or fundamentalists, that they do not read the Koran in the way that the terrorists do, which is a decontextualized way, which is cherry-picking certain sections or certain sections of verses to justify their violence.
The vast majority of Muslims believe that the Koran requires them to live peacefully and compassionately with their neighbors, that the Koran allows Muslims to intermarry with Christians and Jews ... .
The vast majority of Muslims believe these militant extremists are as much a threat to them, if not more so, than to non-Muslims. Their primary target has been Muslim lands and Muslim governments, and more Muslims have died at their hands than non-Muslims, if you put together the violence, their violent attacks against Muslims.
They are a marginalized group. Their reading of the Koran is a historical aberration as well as completely out of the norm among contemporary Muslims. As a woman who chose this faith, what does Islam offer to women?
Primarily, the same thing it offers men - a beautiful vision of God being a compassionate, merciful presence to which we can turn, that gives meaning in our lives. The Koran is absolutely clear about the spiritual equality of men and women, that women like men must fully as adults establish their own relationship with God through prayer, through acts of charity, but spiritual practices that enhance their awareness of God.
According to some studies, the biggest sore point America has is their perception of how Islam treats women ... for example, the Taliban's treatment of women. ... Even in [Afghanistan] the Taliban were considered an aberration. There are women currently in that very conservative, traditionalist country ... who are doctors, who are judges, who are members of Parliament.
Muslim women throughout the world - like women everywhere else - do have struggles with patriarchy. There's no doubt that patriarchy is a powerful force wherever men and women get together.
American women had to struggle for years for their own enfranchisement, to get the vote, to be able to be accepted as equals. A huge news item of the year is that a woman is running for president. Well, four majority Muslim countries have had a female head of state: Turkey, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia. So to make it as if America or the West or Christianity for that matter has never had a problem with patriarchy or the unequal empowerment of men over women, that all of these challenges lie with Islam, is absurd.
Muslim women, like women in other parts of the world, do struggle against their religion and their values being used by some individuals and some conservative groups to keep them back, to deprive them of their rights, but that struggle is not unique and there are many men who are standing with women to try to help them secure their rights and to try to prevent the justification of various cultural practices and norms being used to keep women down.
Often it is not the religion; it's certain cultural practices in some societies that are really problematic. Talk about your decision to wear a hijab.
My understanding of Islam, my reading of the Koran and my reading of the way the Koranic verses on dress have been interpreted over the centuries, I should cover my body in clothes that aren't form-fitting, including my head. ...
I have a number of students who came from Turkey because they were forbidden from wearing head scarf in their universities. Many of them tried to do that for a while, but they felt so like they were really violating their beliefs, that they decided to come study in the United States.
And these are girls, oh my God, they're just adorable. They have a sense of fashion, they have the cutest outfits and these really colorful scarves. Turkey has this kind of fundamentalist secular view and so they're not allowed to wear those. Teachers are not allowed to wear scarves in the schools, any public employee can't wear a scarf, and none of the girls can wear them in their school.
The real problem is the state involvement in the decision, which should be a personal and family decision. It should be natural, natural in the sense that of course we're all influenced by our culture and our family when we choose what we wear in the morning.
I really find the way I look at my scarf is that it's really analogous to sort of appropriate dress in a particular setting.
This isn't why I wear it, but one benefit is that I don't see a lot of descriptions that are just so focused on my appearance. There's so much attention on how they look, their hairstyle. It does allow in a way for people to focus on other things, especially since I'm not a snazzy dresser. What are your thoughts on the Koranic view on the place of women in worship?
Having done the research, there are all sorts of possibilities open for women as religious leaders. It's one of the reasons I have men and women in my chaplaincy programs, and certainly I lead prayer and I teach men and women.
My understanding of the prophetic practice is that when there is a mixed-gender congregation, that a man will lead - not because men are superior or have an innate ability but just in the way the prayer is formed. That is the way we were taught by the prophet Muhammad, just as he taught us the form of prayer and the timing of prayer. ... It's not an emotional issue; it's an issue of Islamic law.
What are your hopes for your children?
My kids, at their age, they really are the kind of Sept. 11 generation kids. When that happened, one was in middle school, one was in elementary school. It's been such a seminal event in their own consciousness as Muslims ... it puts the kids in an uncomfortable position. They really do feel that people make assumptions about them. Teenagers always feel that way anyway, feel that people are judging them, and certainly as Muslims they feel that people are judging them and making assumptions about them and scrutinizing them, but they have good friends and their friends are diverse, from all religions.
More than anything they're just really nice and open and tolerant kids whose friends reflect the diversity of America. Some of the negative experiences they've received have made both of them very quick to defend anyone they feel is being picked on or unfairly treated, no matter what it's for. ... Both of my kids are kind of like defenders of the oppressed.
Ingrid Mattson is the first of four speakers in a series of talks that begin this week, entitled "What do Jews and Christians Need to Know about Islam?" and sponsored by the Baltimore-based Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies. Her talk will be held from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Temple Oheb Shalom, 7310 Park Heights Avenue. Tickets for the four sessions cost $20. To register call 410-523-7227.