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The Nation

A New Face for Islam in North America

She's white. She's Canadian. She's a former Catholic. Who better to lead the largest Muslim organization on the continent?

September 21, 2006|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

ROSEMONT, Ill. — 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."

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