Muslim convert takes on leadership role
Ingrid Mattson had her own brush with the Taliban before they came to power. Back in 1989, just out of a Canadian university, she worked in a crowded Afghan refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, teaching young girls and trying to improve conditions for their families.Skip to next paragraph
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"With some 100,000 refugees, it was a microcosm of most of Afghanistan," she says, "and we were able to work in the whole camp except for one small area, where the Taliban from Kandahar refused to let us teach the girls."
"Most Afghanis were perfectly happy to have their daughters educated," she adds. Her experience with the Taliban and their subsequent actions led Dr. Mattson - a convert to Islam and now a professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut - to speak out against them in Muslim circles ever since.
A small, slender woman with an arrestingly calm demeanor, Mattson has no reluctance about speaking out on issues of import. Her articulate voice was one of the first after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to call publicly on Muslims to condemn not only the attacks, but any resort to violence in the name of Islam.
"Who has the greatest duty to stop violence committed by Muslims against innocent non-Muslims in the name of Islam?" she asked. "The answer obviously is Muslims."
And her voice is one that is heard. Earlier this fall, she was elected by members of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), perhaps the largest and most diverse Muslim organization on the continent, to a two-year term as vice president. She is the first woman to hold that position.
It may seem surprising that a young Canadian-born convert should be the first. "Ingrid is seen by our community as a woman par excellence as representative of both Western and Muslim traditions," explains Sayyid Syeed, executive director of ISNA. "She is Western-born and raised, but has been well educated in Islamic scholarship."
And her election has significance beyond these borders, Dr. Syeed adds. "America is giving women the role that the Koran and the Prophet had given them originally, but has been denied them for cultural reasons in many regions," he says. Women, for example, are members of executive committees of Islamic centers across the country. "To have a woman vice president is a message from the Islamic community in North America to those in other countries."
The new VP is eager to work on ISNA priorities, such as helping to strengthen the Islamic schools across the US, and to broaden training for the local leadership of mosques and Islamic centers.
"ISNA provides training for leaders in such skills as marriage-counseling, conflict-resolution, and domestic-violence issues," Mattson explains. She has also spearheaded creation of an Islamic chaplaincy program to prepare men and women to work as chaplains in the military, in hospitals, in prisons, or on college campuses. The program will include a master's degree and a graduate certificate in Islamic chaplaincy through studies at interdenominational Hartford Seminary.
During an interview in her seminary office at the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Mattson credits Islam with bringing her back to belief in God.
She grew up in a Christian family in Kitchener, Ontario. Her father was a criminal lawyer and her mother stayed home to raise seven children. But she stopped attending church at age 16, she says, when she realized that she just didn't believe what she was being taught. She left religion entirely and studied philosophy at the university, embracing existentialism.
In a way, she adds, that philosophy (which emphasizes the freedom of the individual to make choices in a meaningless world) was good preparation for being a Muslim. "What you choose defines what you are, and while people may be limited in the choices they have in life, there is always the opportunity to choose good," she says.
"So the emphasis in Islam on human responsibility [for choosing right over wrong] made a lot of sense to me - it didn't absolve people from responsibility for their actions or give them an easy way out," she continues. "But when they embrace that responsibility, it gives them a sense of peace."