The face of Islam in America

HARTFORD, Conn. — Ingrid Mattson knows the media drill well.

She has done the “We condemn €¦ (fill in the terrorism incident)” speeches — as if, she says, that’s all anyone needs to hear from the president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

She has done the profiles of her as first woman/first convert/first North American-born head of the continent’s largest Muslim group.

She has done the talk shows retelling how 20 years ago, she left the Catholicism of her Canadian childhood and her college focus on philosophy and fine arts to find her spiritual home in Islam.

“It’s time now to move the focus back off me and back on the issues,” says Mattson, a professor at Hartford Seminary, where she directs the first U.S.-accredited Muslim chaplaincy program at the Macdonald Center.

Mattson begins the second half of her two-year term at the society’s Labor Day weekend national conference outside Chicago. The annual event draws 40,000 Muslims of every sect, culture, age, race and ethnicity for scores of sessions on faith, family and society and a massive multicultural bazaar.

But two weeks before the conference, sitting with two women in her tiny, book-stuffed office, Mattson has a moment to kick off her shoes. She sheds the long brown jacket stifling her tailored blue blouse, leans back and talks about her vision of American Muslim life and her visiting friend, Heba.

Heba Abbasi, 31, a faithful young Muslim in her snug black headscarf, is a Chicago inner-city public school teacher, a fitness trainer, a Palestinian-American wife with an equally observant mosque-going Indian-American husband. Both are also triathletes training for an event.

“This is who I mean. They are who ISNA has to serve. They are why I’m concentrating on building a strong religious and civic institutional life for Muslims in America. I want to be sure I’m not the first and last young woman leader. Why be a flash in the pan?” says Mattson, who turns 44 on Friday.

A uniquely American Islam

She talks of nurturing a genuine American Islam, rooted in the classical faith, which dates back before the theological, political and legal schisms fractured the Ummah, the Muslim world, centuries ago.

This is the faith she chose at age 23, drawn in, she says, by Islam’s beauty, its ethos of service and its synthesis of life and faith in which every act relates to God.

The key is not to confuse the eternal religion — submission to God, respect for the Prophet, prayer, charity and the goal of pilgrimage to Mecca — with Islam’s myriad cultural expressions that shift with times and society, Mattson says. Her essays and speeches are threaded with references to the Quran, the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) and the Sunna (the record of his practices).

American Muslim men and women alike should be empowered to speak to public policy in all areas — medicine, ethics, law, education, justice, marriage and family life — by drawing from the common wellspring of Islam, she says.

Ask others about Mattson and she sounds like Goldilocks in a headscarf: too liberal for some, too conservative for others, and just right to many young activists.

“I’m proud to have her elected as my president,” says Eboo Patel, 31, founder of Chicago’s Interfaith Youth Core, which creates social-service opportunities for Muslims, Christians and Jews. He sees Mattson’s message come to life in ISNA.

“The bulk of the American Muslim community is very young and overwhelmingly under 40. Increasingly our leadership needs to be people we can relate to,” Patel says. “She conducts herself within the ethos of service that unites American and Islam. That’s what religious communities can offer at their best, the inspiration to reach out to the world from the basis of your own heritage.”

But Pamela Taylor, a co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values, wants Mattson to push for women to lead congregational prayers.

“I’m worried that she buys into the same logic that can be, and is, used to restrict women from everything: education, political office, even driving,” Taylor says.

Roles for women

Mattson shakes off that critique. Yes, she does conclude, based on the Prophet’s words, that an imam who leads men and women together in prayer must be male.

However, other religious roles — reciting the Quran, preaching, teaching, scholarship, counseling and issuing legal rulings — are open to all. She’s excited about an upcoming book from a noted scholar who has traced female Islamic scholars back 27 generations to the wife of the Prophet. She lists the “man-made obstacles to women’s spirituality” that worry her more: misogynistic sermons, misguided and demeaning counseling, limited access to education and scholarship, and prayer spaces for women that are too small, uncomfortable or inaccessible.

As for whether men are in the front of the mosque and women in the rear? “When you are bowed in prayer,” says Mattson, “you are not in front or behind any person. You are in front of God. That’s the whole point of prayer.”

Jamillah Karim, an assistant professor of religion at Spelman College in Atlanta, says Mattson is wise not to focus on women as imams.

“Most women are not overly concerned with this. This is an American religious community still in formation. Women are more interested in issues of family life, traditional concerns such as marriage and divorce,” says Karim.

University of Delaware political scientist M.A. Muqtedar Khan gives Mattson mixed reviews. He calls her “an angel” and “the queen of American Muslims.” But he adds, “She’ll never rock the boat.

“She’s not radical on anything. She’s allowed ISNA to take strong positions against terrorism, but she’ll never be at odds with the government. You won’t see any criticism of U.S. policies. You’ll see her continue the talk about the diversity within Islam. She’ll make her mark as an activist with things like her chaplaincy program but not as a scholar with influential ideas or someone who modernizes thinking within Islam,” says Khan.

Won’t rock the boat?

Mattson rolls her brown eyes. Headline-making, provocative individual action holds no attraction for her.

“That’s the ‘great man’ theory of history. Look where that’s gotten us. I want to build something. I’m interested in long-term institutional strength,” she says.

Mercy and caring

Topics at this year’s conference include sessions on faith and social justice and community service, and one called “U.S. Sponsored Torture: A Concern for Muslims and All People of Faith.”

“If religion is not about expanding the borders of your empathy, you might as well write it off,” she says. “Religion is all about extending mercy and caring. If not, it’s just tribalism: Muhammad himself said religion should be the opposite.”

Mattson says she takes on the controversies, too, confronting in her own way the atheists, ideologues and “Islama-phobes” who say religion is outmoded or Islam is anti-Zionist or, simply, irrationally, fear any Muslims among them.

“These days, if you say anything nice to or about Muslims, it’s seen as being soft on terrorism, as if all Muslims were terrorists.

“Anti-Muslim sentiments are used as a way to score points” in politics, she says.

“People see us, they see Heba and her husband, who wears a beard and a kufi (cap), and they have no idea the life they lead.”

Or the life that Mattson leads.

If people saw her, covered from her colorful scarf to her long skirt, walking 3 miles home on a steamy summer evening, they would not know:

• She’s a mother of two teens.

• She relaxes by mowing the lawn; juvenile rheumatoid arthritis forced her to give up running.

• She kept her name when she married her husband, a Baghdad-born Egyptian engineer whom she met while working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the ’80s.

Photos of Afghan friends join family snapshots tacked to Mattson’s office wall, along with a newspaper photo of an old man swarmed by pigeons he is feeding. It inspires her, she says, because “this is a man who has found exactly what he wants to do.”

“What do you want to do?” may be Mattson’s favorite question.

When someone asks her guidance, she’ll reply: “Be the kind of Muslim you want to be. Do not let other people define your faith for you.”

Mattson’s Islam? “To glorify God through service to God’s creation.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday August 21, 2007.
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