March 06, 2008

Krista's Journal: An American Leader, A Muslim Voice

March 6, 2008

Douglas Johnston, who many listeners appreciated in our program Religion and Diplomacy in the 21st Century, says that the American Muslim community is the greatest asset and defense the U.S. has in global issues with a Muslim component. By that he means that the American Muslim community provides a living demonstration that Islamic devotion and democratic citizenship can go hand in hand. Yet in all of the rhetoric about Islam that has marked U.S. public life in recent years, I've rarely heard this assertion noted, much less celebrated. The fact and nature of Ingrid Mattson's leadership is just one example of this oversight. She first became a vice president of the Islamic Society of North America — one of the oldest and largest consortiums of Muslims on the continent — 10 days before 9/11. This went virtually unreported in the fallout of the terrorist attacks that, paradoxically, first put Islam on the map for many Americans. Less understandably, when Mattson ascended to the presidency of that organization in the fall of 2006, news of her election was obscured by headlines of European crises involving Islam, focused on controversies around women and Islamic dress. In our conversation, you will hear her speak openly and with great humanity about the qualities of character of Muslims who first drew her to study and embrace Islam after a Catholic upbringing in Canada. You may be moved, as I am, by the passion that enters her measured voice when she speaks about her love of her chosen tradition, and about her diplomatic balancing act to reconcile the gifts of modern women with the original example of the Prophet Muhammad. Mattson also offers a rare window, I think, into what she calls the "double bind" North American Muslims experience at present. They are held culpable in Western society for atrocities perpetrated globally in the name of Islam. And they are held culpable in the wider Muslim world for association with controversial U.S. actions and policies. So it is with a stalwart determination that Ingrid Mattson resists pressure — from within Islam and outside it — to lead defensively, reactively in any direction. She has been, and remains, a critical voice within and for Islam. And yet she refuses to overextend her energy condemning, positioning, demanding. She is committed foremost, as she puts it, to "slow, patient" work — counterintuitive in our culture — of participating in lasting change by helping to build a model Muslim community here. My Muslim conversation partners these past years, including Ingrid Mattson, know that this is work for the long haul, a task for multiple generations. But when I see her receive a standing ovation at the Union for Reform Judaism biennial conference, as I did just a few months ago, I know she and her community are reshaping global stereotypes and dynamics. When I speak with the former British Muslim extremist Ed Husain, and hear his stories of emerging from Islamism because of the example and teaching of North American Muslims, I am confirmed again in this sense. As I've written in this journal before, "the Muslim world" extends as vitally through Paris and Detroit as it does through Saudi Arabia and Indonesia; "they" are "us." And so Ingrid Mattson is an American leader, not merely a Muslim leader, one whose voice and actions deserve to be heard and heeded.

Recommended Reading

Image of Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today
Author: Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith, Kathleen M. Moore
Publisher: Oxford University Press (2006)
Binding: Hardcover, 208 pages

Ingrid Mattson has written many intriguing and thought-provoking essays. I'd encourage you to read "Discovering (Not Uncovering) the Spirituality of Muslim Women" and "Stopping Oppression: A Muslim Obligation."

Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity is written by three leading scholars on Islam in America. This lively and thorough book attempts to demystify some of the challenging stereotypes surrounding Muslim women in America. The authors present a diversity of ways Islamic women live out their faith and the competing discourses taking place in North America today. The authors, like Ingrid Mattson, are helping to bridge the gap between "us and them."

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is professor of Islamic Studies and the president of the Islamic Society of North America.