A New Face
for Islam in North America
By Stephanie Simon Los Angeles Times
Ingrid Mattson had given up God. She had stopped saying her rosaries, stopped
taking Communion. She was an atheist, abroad in Paris the summer before her
senior year of college.
But she could not stop listening to the Koran.
"Forget it," she told herself. "This can't be happening to me." Yet day after
day, she popped the cassette into her Walkman, mesmerized by the chanting and
oddly moved by lines such as:
"The sun and the moon follow courses computed. And the herbs
and the trees both bow in adorationÉ It is he who has spread
out the earth for [his] creatures."
When she returned home to Canada after that summer of 1986, Mattson signed up
for the only Arabic class she could find. It was full of 8-year-old immigrants,
who soon came to resent her for winning so many of the chocolates the teacher
awarded top students. Mattson wanted to enjoy hanging out in bars with her
brothers, the way she always had. Instead, she found herself at her sewing
machine, stitching head scarves. That spring, she
gathered several Muslim friends as witnesses and pledged herself to Allah.
It was an unusual move for a white Canadian ex-Catholic. And it set Mattson down
a trailblazing path.
About 60,000 Muslims in the U.S. and Canada recently elected Mattson, 43,
president of the largest Muslim organization on the continent, an educational
and professional association called the Islamic Society of North America. She is
the first woman, nonimmigrant or convert to Islam to become president of the
Her election comes at a tumultuous time for the estimated 6 million Muslims in
the U.S. Nearly 40% of Americans admit prejudice against Muslims, according to a
recent poll by USA Today and Gallup. A similar percentage support mandatory
identification cards for Muslims. And one in five Americans said they would not
want a Muslim neighbor.
Many Muslims are hoping Mattson can soften this fear. She does not speak with a
foreign accent. She doesn't wear a veil, though she does cover her head with a
thick, dark scarf.
Soft-spoken and quick to smile, Mattson is a suburban soccer mom; she cheers at
her son's games, helps her daughter with college applications, gardens, hikes,
reads the New Yorker, laughs at Paris Hilton's reality TV.
"Many Americans think we didn't arrive in this country until 9/11. She helps
people know we're part of the American landscape,"said Aneesah Nadir, the
president of an Islamic social services agency based in Phoenix.
Such comments were a frequent refrain at the Islamic society's annual
convention, which drew more than 32,000 Muslims to this suburb of Chicago
earlier this month. Mattson was mobbed by fans wanting to take her picture. One
father brought his five daughters
from South Carolina to meet her. "She's a visible refutation of stereotypes,"
said Hasan Aijaz, a college student from Virginia.
Outside the organization, Muslims have greeted Mattson's election more warily.
She's received angry letters from conservatives who resent having a woman in
charge. Such critics often cite an ancient hadith, or narrative about the life
of the prophet Muhammad, stating that no good will come from entrusting
leadership to a woman.
The Islamic left has questioned Mattson's credentials as well. A traditionalist
who dresses in modest ankle-length skirts and loose blouses - and who prefers,
whenever possible, to avoid shaking men's hands - Mattson pushes women's rights
only so far.
She has called for mosques to dismantle any barriers that block women from
seeing or clearly hearing the imam during prayer. But she does not support the
more radical, feminist notion that women should pray alongside men - or even
lead men in prayer. Many Muslims argue that such an arrangement would distract
men from God or lead to immoral conduct. Mattson explains her objection this
way: The prophet would not have approved.
Mattson's journey to Islam began when she was a teenager in the Canadian town of
Kitchener, Ontario. As a girl, she had been the most pious in her family of
seven children, but when she entered high school, she began to find bedrock
concepts such as the Holy
Trinity illogical. The nuns and priests at her Catholic school were unable to
answer her questions. "Accept the mystery," they told her. She couldn't.
Though she stayed on at St. Mary's High School, Mattson stopped looking for God.
Years later, during her summer in Paris, Mattson became friendly with several
West African Muslims. They introduced her to Islam; her spirit stirred. "What
moved me most was the way the Koran described the majesty and beauty of
creation," she said.
One of her favorite passages tells of God's handiwork: "He has let free the two
bodies of flowing water, meeting together... Out of them come pearls and
coral... And his are the ships sailing smoothly through the seas, lofty as
After graduating from the University of Waterloo, Mattson worked in a refugee
camp in Pakistan, where she met her husband, an Egyptian engineer. He took care
of their small children while she earned a doctorate in Islamic studies from the
University of Chicago. Since 1998, she has been teaching about Islam at Hartford
Seminary, a on denominational Christian institution in Connecticut.
As president of the Islamic Society of North America - an unpaid part-time post
- Mattson will lead a diverse organization that trains Muslim leaders, sets
standards for hundreds of mosques, helps immigrants adjust to American life and
serves as an umbrella uniting associations of Muslim engineers, doctors and
She will also be a very visible spokeswoman for the faith - a role she relishes.
In particular, she can't wait to refute the notion that Islam is a religion
solely "for brown and black people," she said.
"When African Americans make the move to Islam, it's considered valid. When I
do, it's considered cultural apostasy, as if somehow I've abandoned my whiteness
to become an 'other,' " Mattson said.
In the past, many Muslims - like evangelical Christians before them - argued
that they had to isolate themselves from American politics and culture in order
to keep their faith pure. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Mattson argues that
Muslims no longer have that luxury.
"We need to form an axis of good with our neighbors," she said. "We're 2% of the
American population. How are we going to be effective unless we make alliances?"
Her push for interfaith partnerships got off to a shaky start when the Islamic
society invited former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to address the
convention. Jay Tcath, vice president of the Chicago Jewish Federation, accused
the organization of "a dereliction of civic responsibility" for honoring Khatami
despite his record of human rights abuses.
The Anti-Defamation League also takes issue with the Islamic society for having
provided a forum for anti-Semitic language at several conferences over the
years, said Deborah Lauter, the group's national civil rights director. The
organization's leaders "have been in bed with extremist groups," Lauter said,
"[so] we go into these relationships with some serious concerns."
Mattson says her group does not invite speakers "known for offensive
statements," but offers "as broad a platform as possible for legitimate views."
At the convention's opening
seminar, Mattson urged her fellow Muslims to step proudly into mainstream
society, to engage their neighbors and promote their good works until Americans
stop associating Islam with terror.
"Islamic medical clinics... Islamic ethics. Islamic charity. These are the terms
that should come off the tips of tongues," she told a cheering crowd. "Islamic
peace movements. Islamic human rights... This is who we are!"
Stephanie Simon is Times Staff Writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org