A New Face for Islam in North America

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 adoration... 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 group.

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 mountains."

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 nondenominational 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 other professionals.

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 intellectuals. Islamic peace movements. Islamic human rights... This is who we are!"

Stephanie Simon is Times Staff Writer and can be reached at [email protected]

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Older Comments:
Salamualikum wa rahamatullah wa barakatu all muslim brothers and sisters. its realy to be pleased that she convert to holy and best religin islam and holy propht(MBUH) so' i pray for her to be one of good belivers of Allah for all life and to keep going on as muslim lady in Islamic ways, and i a have request form her to tell other ladys to convert Islam. thats all form my side. May Allah belss her as honest lady.
Wa Manallah Tafeeq
your Muslim brother Sajad Noorzai rahi

Assalamualaikum wrbt and greetings to all.

Firstly I simply failed to understand what Kaleema is talking about, what " Whiteness " and what " coloured " ? What confusing message or points were you trying to raise here ? What and why talk about matters that are alien to the Islamic faith ?

In one Chapter in the Holy Quran, ALLAH ALL MIGHTY Decreed that ...." HE hath Created men and women, nation and tribes may that they know and love one another. And the best is the sight of ALLAH is one who is most righteous( taqwa ) ...."

So what on earth, will all the confused structural English language is Kaleema talking about ? Look, in as far as even Christianity is concerned, historians and even writers like Deepak Chopra ( I have reservations over his views but agree on this one ), that Jesus ( peace be upon him ) was of a Middle Eastern ethnicity, he is not white if you are talking about the Caucasians or Europeans descend. In fact all the major religions in the world were born or originates in Asia or the Middle East, and Middle East is still part of Greater Asia. But are Asians to be any proud of that ?

Surely not, because religion, notably Islam is open to all mankind, it has not cultural identification or ethnic grouping albeit it does not exclusively confine itself to any thing.

Before the coming of Jesus ( peace be upon him ) Europeans were mostly atheists or worshippers of animistic beliefs or followers of polytheist " gods " or " demi gods " or " godesses ".

And before the arrival of Prophet Muhammad ( peace be upon him ) the Arabs were pagans or idol worshippers as well, and it was Islam that brought serenity and peace to the lives of these Arabs.

If time permits me, next I'll quote a few excerpts from figures like Napolean Bonarparte, jurist like Betrand Russel, on what he thought Islam to be and I'm sure that readers will appreciate his thinking as well.

Wassalam, Regards,

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,' . . .I don't understand the argument. I do think that "whiteness" as it a spread across the globe in the last 1000 years should be abandoned. This "whiteness" is not skin color specific all the time, but it does signify a certain type of cultural and racial supremacy, arrogance and sense of being the "normal" and all others being "other than normal". The sense that people of color have about "whiteness" grew out of the racist and supremacist paradigms (sp) that have developed over the last 500 years or more and constitute what is basically called "white". Before this nomenclature or racial classification, people were known by the nation or national names, including blacks who were not just black, but belongs to a certain place/nation in Africa. The creation of the American Dream, Canadian Dream (native annihilation, European expansionism and seizure of native lands, lives and future) redefined these regular ethnic Europeans as "white" and conferred upon them all the priviledge that such entails. We as Muslims, especially most African American Muslims are looking for a color nuetral society. We are more willing to marry, associate, live with than most Muslims, brown and white included. If non-African Americans were more willing to live among us, marry us and worship with us, build community together, no one would feel the need to advocate for the inclusion of "whites" in Islam. To feel the need to do so, speaks more about the need to hold onto "white identity" and its ensuing white skin priviledge, than a need to just be Muslim. Perhaps the comforts of "whiteness" for which many have paid the dearest price, are too hard to live without, even as a Muslim.

Mashallah, the more I read the more I appreicate sister Maica comments, Jazak Allah Al Khair, May Allah bless every good Muslim a pious wife.

Firstly I admire and respect sisters like Maica Bentivoglio your revards is with Allah alone and we all know he has no limits, Islam encourage simplicity and privacy for both men and women. Your husband is one lucky man and childerns will Inshallah be mujahid, Secondly may Allah help sis Ingrid and keep her on the straight path. Ameen

Sallam aleikum brothers and sisters, I saw her in CNN interview during 11 September week than i said " May Allah Bless Her with More knowlegde and strength to stand for Islamic causes", Ramadhan Kareem.


Heartiest congratulations from Malaysia to Dr Ingrid Mattson for her achievements and of course above all that, Praise be to ALLAH, the Most Merciful and Most Compassionate, for the Guidance and blessing this Muslim sister with faith in HIM, and for showing her the message of the truth.

Congratulations Sister and Dr. Mattson, being in Canada as a President of a Muslim organisation i.e the Islamic Society of North America is indeed a gigantic responsibility and honour as well. It will definitely dispel or put to correctness the unfair notion especially among the non Muslims that women do not have the dignified place in Islam.

And at the same time, I call upon all Muslims men or women to accept her leadership, and no gender bias discussions must creep in. She must be given the opportunity to show her sense of directions and visions in leading the organisation. She may have plans and progrrames to correct the negative and wrong pictures of Islam as so often potrayed by the interest group controlled media.

In concluding, I am proud of this Sister of Islam and I pray for her success in any endeavours, and I wish her all the best in everything in life.



Brother Kris

well done. i appreciate the last lines of the article.

Hey Sameena,
You seem to be allergic to Muslims, whether they are convert or not. .. We, Muslims, do not need ostentatious Muslims like you WHO obviously has no clue about the message of Islam. For example, you complaining about Hijab. People who do understand Islam, their bodies create high affinity for Hijab and instead of complaining, they cherish such adornment. WHAT ABOUT YOU? You are a self-declared smart and educated one. And always complaining about Islam and Muslims ..
I hate to blame you for your deviations into the world of "Civilized fluid" and "Freedom Fries". These are the two major symptoms of a deviator from the staight path (aka Islam).

In summary, You are swimming in the sea of confusion. You need HELP BIG TIME. ..



Asalamu alaikum
As for the commment from mariah it is time for us to come out of the closet
Well let me tell u how I feel
As a mother everytime my children are appreciated for their manners and belief in Allah and all the righteous behaviour, or everytime a husband say I am a wonderful wife and everytime someone says to me I am a good muslim I come out of the closet shining with Allahs blessings without having to go out and do a mans duties.
As mothers we have a wonderful large , resposability to teach our children who later go on to the world and pass it on to their children .
We as housewives have a big job just like any doctor etc, we do all that at home , we deal with our emotions and that of all family members.
So stop knocking it down. If we would do better jobs as mothers teaching proper behaviour to our children we would not have to have utside jobs like now and disregarding our families our husbands.
As I see it women who want careers are asking for the easy life and not the challenges of family.
As more and more women go to work the structure of morals fidelity etc. are ruined.
Be proud to different then men and do what we are to be doing.
We are different physically and be proud of it.
Allah has given us so many priviliges as women like not fasting certain days etc. He wants our men to care for us just as we care for them.
We are not to compete.
Wasalam Feamanillah

asalamu alaikum
I reverted 2/21/04 and I was looking for a religion long before I truly discovered Islam. And it is wonderful see of another woman who reverted and can help society by her actions ,but, I deeply believe that a woman should not be a leader because we are statrting to behave just like the infidels who do not follow the qur an. A woman can share her ideas and stories and help by saying it is very good to be a housewife but not lead as a man it contradicts the teachings of the Qur an. this world is all kaotic do to the lack of mothers attending their homes husbands and children.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak out.
Walakum salam Fiamanillah

Congratulation Dr Ingrid Mattson (sp). I also would like to congratulate ISNA leadership for recognizing women's leadership ability. This is a great example from their part. SO often times conservatives downplay role that women can carry in the communities. Ignorance can only be remove through education. Despite so many anecdotal evidence that is not widely recognize, western women convert often times lead their families towards better practise of Islam. The conservatives if you ask them will admit to this but they will (due to their cultural baggages that they refuse to let go despite what Islam says) not allow or recognize women who are capable to leadership role or any active role (other than cooking... and baby sitting). These capable women refuse to just listen and do as they said, they want be active contributing participant. Alf mabruk (1000 congratulations) again to Dr Mattson and ISNA leadership. I fully trust your ability to lead us US Muslim to a better future. Stand up for the real truth and not for cheap political and other worldly gains.

I saw Mattson on TV today/yesterday on a CNN program. She was very effective. The general spiteful behavior of the host was curtailed...in this time and age in North America, having Mattson in charge is one of the best moves Muslims could have made.

Interesting article, as a white American I associate Islam with arabs only, it's bizarre to see a white lady Muslim to say the least. I live in Brooklyn with many Muslims and they don't associate with anyone but arab Muslims at all.

Plus in America white people aren't allowed to join the nation of Islam, it's for black people only. So this is really bizarre to see just a white lady Muslim.

i think it is good to see more people of different nationalies and ethincities stepping up and declaring their faith to the most honorable one, full of golry and of grace, i think it is high time that more "white" people were placed in the forefront by way of allah of coarse-for he is the compeller and protector of the faith to promote the faith and show some of the non- whites how racism is really an evil maliace of the enemy- alhumdulilah wa al-khaliq:all praise is for allah the creator.


Sometimes I wonder if a similar incident would occur in aMuslim country where a Muslim woman or man would give up Islam and become a Christian or some thing else. What fate would befall her!
In Canada, they couln't care less if you flip-flop between different faiths.

But Alas, I am told punishment for an apostrate in a Muslim land could be somewhat harsh- It is death!

We shouldnt pat ourselves on our openmindedness just yet. ISNA members chose a hijab clad Muslimah. Unfortunately, whenever a woman converts to Islam, those in authority make sure she gets introduced to only one kind of Muslimah, the kind that dons the veil. There are plenty of muslim women out there who dont think it is necessary to be covered from head to toe to be a muslim and its about time converted women realize that reality. Among educated muslims, hijab is an exception and not the norm. Unfortunately a major gratification that islamic revivalism (and Christian,jewish and Hindu revivalism) gives to men is using Islam as a means to control women. Enough already with this emphasis on hijab for our new converts. I am sick of it.

Assalaamu alaikum
All I can say is "Go sister go sister"
As a white american muslimah, i say it is time for us to come out of the closet and into the light! you should see the smiles I get when I ride through the university on my bike coming home from work at the hospital with full hijab! Mashallah someone invented the Al amira so that we may be more mobile!