The Face Of Islam


She's the first woman, the first North American and the first convert to head the Islamic Society of North America

now she works to explain her faith to a post-Sept. 11 public

Q&A -- Ingrid Mattson

April 22, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun Reporter

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.

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