News

Ingrid Mattson

Ingrid Mattson can tell that nobody likes to sit next to her on airplanes anymore. Ever since she converted to Islam two decades ago, Mattson, a 43-year-old white Canadian, has been learning what it means to be part of a mistrusted minority. But the recently elected president of the Islamic Society of North America doesn't mind when people speak to her in an extra-loud voice, or stare as she walks by. "It helps me understand what so many other Muslims and visible minorities go through," she says. "I have the advantage of not having grown up with that ... so I have a certain confidence."

She's going to need it. Mattson is the first woman, the first nonimmigrant and the first Muslim convert to be elected to head the largest Islamic group for social outreach and education in North America. Her election comes at a critical time in the history of Islam. As violent extremists threaten to obliterate the voice of moderate Islam worldwide, Muslims in Western countries, isolated by rising discrimination, struggle to find their place. Such challenges would be daunting for any leader, let alone someone relatively new to the faith. But Mattson, a professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut who is fluent in Arabic, sees herself as uniquely positioned to change the way the world views Muslims--and how they view themselves.

Raised a Roman Catholic, Mattson grew up attending daily mass. "I had the simple, naive piety of a child," she recalls. But as a teenager, she realized she no longer believed in the God they talked about in church. "My older brother, said, 'Look at it pragmatically. It's only one hour a week. If it's true, then you're set, and if not, you've only wasted one hour a week.' I said, 'No, thanks.' It wasn't something I could be wishy-washy about." She abandoned religion, she thought, for good.

But just a few years later, Mattson became fascinated by the generosity and dignity she saw in some Muslim friends, even as they faced prejudice. "They had a sense of balance," she says, that encouraged her to study the Qur'an. The first time she prayed the salat --the ritual prayer of bowing and prostration--she was stunned to feel the closeness with God that she'd lost as a teenager. He was no longer in the Church, but he was everywhere else, she says--in nature, art and the welcoming faces of other Muslims. At 23, she embraced the faith, and began to wear the higab, covering all but her face and hands in public.

Mattson--now raising two teenage kids with her husband, Amer--has become an ambassador for Islam in the West, preaching tolerance and understanding. She founded a Muslim chaplaincy program at Hartford--the only one in North America--that trains students to represent their faith and minister in places like hospitals, colleges, prisons and the military. Within the Muslim community, Mattson aims to form locally elected councils to give worshipers more control over who preaches in their mosques and help keep out extremists. She's also encouraging mosques to hire more female imams and pushing the women in her classes to be more assertive. "I can be very mean," says the petite, mild-mannered Mattson. "Sometimes I'll ask them to repeat themselves three times--until their voice is loud enough." Mattson's betting that people will listen.