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.

"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."

Most important, though, she says, "it was through reading the Koran that I became aware of the presence of God and was convinced of it - that is what touched my heart."

Given the importance to her of individual choice, Mattson is well aware of the major questions Westerners have about religious freedom in Muslim countries - and whether Muslims have the right to convert to other faiths. A few converts have had their children taken away or have been persecuted as a result. A specialist in Islamic law, Mattson says this is an area that is now being widely examined and contested.

"Many scholars have convincingly argued that apostasy is not a crime, while treason is, based on cases from the early days of Islam, where people who left the community for other religions were not punished, while those who left the political community and betrayed it were."

What happened historically in some Muslim societies, she says, was that no distinction was made between community affiliation and religious affiliation. But today's world makes other demands, and she supports the case being made for separation of the two.

Mattson's own research relates to application of Islamic law in society. Most recently, she's written on how poverty is defined when distributing the charitable funds Muslims donate in zakat - the annual almsgiving that is one of the five pillars of Islam.

At the center of her full life of teaching, research, and community activity, however, is her family - her husband and two children.

She and Amer Aetak met in the refugee camp in Pakistan, where he, an Egyptian engineer, was digging wells and constructing housing. One of her most touching memories is the response of refugee families when they learned the two had quietly married.

"When they heard I hadn't had a dress, they were so sad; they pooled what little money they had and presented me with this outfit of satin pants and a red velveteen dress with pompoms - it was incredible!" she says.

They now have a daughter, Soumayya, and a son, Ubayda, whom her husband helped care for while she completed her doctorate at the University of Chicago. The children attend public schools in West Hartford, where Mr. Aetak is a systems application engineer.

Since Sept. 11, life has become even fuller with the need to respond to constant calls from community groups and the press about Islam and where US Muslims stand. Besides giving talks and interviews, Mattson joined with her seminary colleagues in offering a Web course on Islam via

When the terrorist attacks occurred, she found herself thinking, "It's all over - all the work you have done has gone down the drain." Just the week before, she had left ISNA's annual convention, attended by 40,000 people, "full of optimism, confident that American Muslims had begun to find a way to contribute positively to the public life of this country, while preserving our distinct identity."

Now, clearly weary with the strain of the past few weeks, she is committed to keeping the communication going.

"Ingrid always wants people to communicate, to keep the dialogue open," whether it's between family members or across faith communities, says Annie Higgins, a close friend from graduate-school days in Chicago.

Ms. Higgins remembers a small incident that occurred when she stopped to say goodbye to the family before going away for two years. Little Soumayya, unhappy about the day's events, wouldn't speak to her. But later that evening, the child phoned to say, "Annie, I love you."

She wasn't under pressure to do so, Higgins says. It's simply that her mother quietly talks things through. "Ingrid just doesn't like to see any door closed and has a way of always bringing about positive communications."

Mattson sees this difficult time as the opportunity to do that. Many Muslim Americans have shied from interactions with those of other faiths, she says. Now, some recognize they have an obligation and really want to get involved. "In some ways, this crisis has given many people the push they needed."

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