EDUCATION: Kitchener-raised, she converted to Islam from Catholicism, balancing her new faith with others. That knack has taken her, among other places, to the White House and to a leading U.S. seminary and, now, to Huron University College in London. Jennifer O’Brien reports on the remarkable story of Ingrid Mattson.
When you grow up in a big Catholic family and decide at 23 to convert to Islam, there are a few things to consider.
How do you embrace your new faith without alienating those you love?
How strictly do you follow the rules?
Can you still go to Oktoberfest?
“Was it a lifestyle change?” asks Kitchener-native Ingrid Mattson with a laugh, recalling the religious awakening that put her on a path to becoming the first chair of Islamic studies at Huron University College in London.
“At the beginning I’d wonder, ‘If I don’t drink, can I still go to bars? If I don’t go to bars, where can I see my brothers socially?’ That was part of my social life with family and friends.”
Mattson, 48, will soon occupy a hot seat at Huron, where a flap blew up this summer when the Anglican-affiliated school at the University of Western Ontario decided to accept money raised by Muslim groups — one local, one national — to help fund a new chair in Islamic studies.
Mattson will be the program’s first chair.
A small, but vocal group of critics had argued two Muslim groups — the Muslim Association of Canada and the International Institute for Islamic Thought — have ties to controversial Muslim groups abroad, and the $2 million in funding could influence how Huron designed the courses and chose the chair.
Huron officials and Muslim leaders insisted neither was true — and that the accusations were groundless.
Meanwhile, during the past 20 years, Mattson — whose appointment was announced last month — has mastered a balance between her new faith and her old life. That balance works beautifully within her family and also across North America, where she’s helped build bridges between religious organizations — while making a name for herself as one of the continent’s most respected Muslim leaders.
With a resume that includes a term as president of the Islamic Society of North America, a spot on the White House’s faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships task force, and a place at U.S. President Barack Obama’s inaugural prayer service where she represented American Muslims, Mattson’s appointment is a thrill for the college.
“We are just so excited about her. She’s the total package,” said Huron principal Stephen McClatchie. “Her record of engagement in civil society and bringing together people of different faiths was so compelling.”
Mattson starts work in London next July, after leaving her teaching post at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
“How great is it to be bringing a Canadian of her calibre back into this country,” McClatchie said.
Receptive to questions and down-to-earth, Mattson is easily found on YouTube, where some of her interviews and presentations are posted.
Still, since Huron announced her appointment, critics have resurfaced. One national columnist suggested she supports Hamas and Wahhabism, the state creed in Saudi Arabia. The columnist didn’t quote anyone or offer evidence.
“I don’t take it personally. When you grow up with four brothers, you get a thick skin,” Mattson said from Connecticut, where she’s director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary.
“I know there are people in the world who are motivated to create misunderstanding,” she said, “but I figure if anyone makes an accusation they should prove it.”
Asked to respond to comments that the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and to terrorism, she rhymed off an exhaustive list of interfaith initiatives she’s spearheaded.
“I’m really proud of what we did at ISNA. It has never been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and I never have been,” she said. “Anyone who makes the claim that we are, or I am, anti-Semitic, is just ridiculous.”
Mattson — who’s heading to Jordan next month with her mother for a Christian/Muslim conference — is known for bridge-building between Muslim and Jewish leaders, and for her mission to educate Canadian and American Muslims on becoming more active in society.
The Islamic studies program at Huron is a response to growing interest in courses about Islam from both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars.
“I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of academic CVs, but when I saw (Mattson’s), there was no question,” said McClatchie, adding Mattson’s appointment was the same as “any other academic appointment” upon the recommendation of a committee.
The committee was made up of Huron faculty and members of the Muslim community, who had “voice but no vote,” McClatchie said.
On its website, the college has posted a list of endorsements for the Kitchener native by religious leaders.
“Prof. Mattson is one of North America’s premier Muslim scholars of the Holy (Koran). She is also one of the great leaders of Islam on this continent,” writes Rabbi Burton Visotzky, of the Jewish Theological Seminary in one endorsement.
“She will bring her wisdom to Ontario to promote good and productive relations among Jews and Muslims throughout Canada.”
Yet, in another post to the Huron site, McClatchie felt compelled to respond to accusations that have recently surfaced in the media.
“We thought it was important to set the public record straight,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of the response is quite positive and we are just so excited about her.”
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MATTSON ON MATTSON
Religion: “I wasn’t interested in religion at all. I didn’t know anything about Islam or Muslims. . . as I was reading (the Koran), I started to experience this awareness in me that kept rising to the surface, despite me not wanting particularly to acknowledge it.”
Childhood: An animal and nature lover born in 1963, Mattson grew up one of seven children in a close-knit family. They spent summers at a cottage in the Thousand Islands and later worked planting trees in Northern Ontario and B.C. “I had a great childhood,” she says.
Conversion: At 15, before devoting herself Islam, Mattson declared herself an atheist. At 22, she picked up a Koran, after befriending some Senegalese Muslim students in Paris. Within a year, she’d converted to Islam, with the support of her family.
Family: Married to an Egyptian-Canadian engineer, with two grown children, a cat and a 90-pound rescue dog named Ziggy, Mattson has taught at Hartford Seminary since 1998. “I love it here and the opportunities I’ve had, but I miss Canada,” she said. “It’s home.”
- Director of the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
- In 2006, elected first woman president of the Islamic Society of North America.
- Through the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), was an adviser to the Bush and Obama administrations and represented U.S. Muslims at Obama’s inauguration.
- Served on the White House task force for faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships.
- Helped develop the Children of Abraham, a program organized by ISNA and the Union for Reform Judaism to promote understanding between Muslim and Jewish communities.
- Helped organize the first “mosque-synagogue twinning,” a kind of rabbi-imam exchange.
- Holds a PhD in Islamic studies from the University of Chicago.