Islam in America

Published : Nov 17, 2006 00:00 IST

Ingrid Mattson, the new ISNA president. - AFP/HO/HARTFORD SEMINARY

Ingrid Mattson, the new ISNA president. - AFP/HO/HARTFORD SEMINARY

The largest Muslim organisation in North America gets its first woman president, who is also the first convert to occupy the position.

AT the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) held in Chicago this September, thousands of American Muslims clamoured to give a standing ovation to their new president, Ingrid Mattson.

A Professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, Mattson is the first woman and the first convert to Islam to lead ISNA, the largest Muslim organisation in North America. Since her elevation to the post, she has been interviewed by scores of publications around the world and touted as the new face of American Islam.

In a recent conversation we had at the ISNA headquarters in Indiana, she spoke about her views on America, Islam and the challenges faced by Muslim women.

The most striking aspect of Ingrid Mattson's conversion to Islam is how it exemplifies coming to faith as the culmination of a spiritual and intellectual quest. Raised in a Roman Catholic family in small-town Canada, Mattson was initially introduced to Islam during a college trip to Paris. There, intrigued by the practices of West African friends, she decided to learn more about the faith. After studying the Koran and other works on Islam, she and a number of her friends converted to Islam.

Listening to her account, it is impossible not to feel envious of this beatific, existentially inspired and intellectually moored introduction to faith. Indeed, her story points to the existence of a spiritual marketplace that many people living in the West are able to avail themselves of without fear of persecution or ostracism.

Her account is also inspiring in that it represents ultimately what human interaction with faith should be - deeply personal, intellectually examined and completely uncoerced. In a country like the U.S. where liberal values have enshrined the separation of the Church and the state - and religion though sometimes political, remains for the most part intensely personal - Islam too, in the person of Ingrid Mattson, seems refreshingly and gloriously purified of political taints.

It is also true that the vast majority of ISNA members have markedly different interactions and understandings with their faith. Unlike most of them, Ingrid Mattson, who is also the first native-born North American to lead ISNA, brings a refreshingly different perspective to the organisation. Since she has lived in a Muslim country for only a very short time, her experience of being Muslim is unmarred by the use of Islam for political manipulations, nationalistic agendas and sectarian warfare.

In being so, she epitomises the new, developing face of American Islam, which can perhaps transcend such corrupting influences. Her election, touted by many as a ground-breaking event that exemplified the truly progressive nature of the American Muslim community, represents the dream that Islam in America can be rescued from the detrimental and caustic influences of politics and patriarchy.

Ingrid Mattson revealed the American attitudes towards organisation and reform. While grappling with the question of how American Muslim women are often relegated to the side rooms and basements of mosques, she laments the lack of organisational structure in mosques where women who "do most of the work are not given the ability to provide input in questions such as space allocation". Her solution to this is to create concrete organisational structures that require women's input prior to the making of decisions.

Similarly, Ingrid Mattson emphasises the need for institutional training for religious leaders as opposed to the informal, experiential learning often provided by those trained in non-Western nations. Indeed, Ingrid Mattson brings to ISNA a style of management and problem-solving meant to transform the immigrant-based character of the organisation to one that is representative of the native-born population comfortable with notions such as organisational structures, institutionalised training and rule-based decision-making procedures.

There are, however, several intellectual challenges inherent in this project of constructing a distinctly "American" Islam. In addressing how the diverse constituency of ISNA resolves problems, Ingrid Mattson said that a consensus was reached after turning to actual sources of religious knowledge such as the Koran and fiqh rather than to culturally held beliefs about what was religiously prescribed.

Her solution makes sense since carving a community perhaps requires undermining the individual cultures of the constituents in favour of evolving a new "American" identity. The more problematic inquiry is whether this community of American Muslims will admit to being distinctly American and thereby a variation of Islam or a culturally transcendent "true" Islam that looks condescendingly on its cousins in other parts of the world who may not be as theologically sophisticated and grounded in purely doctrinal sources of religious knowledge.

Achieving a precise segregation between faith and culture may never be entirely possible given that all interactions with faith inevitably take place within a certain culture and are inescapably influenced by it.

Indeed, even Ingrid Mattson's conversion to Islam is arguably distinctly American in its self-guided and ultimately personal connection with faith. Finally, denying American Islam's connection to American culture and positing it instead as the authentic and culturally unaffected Islam flirts with the danger of creating hegemonic associations that are too often a part of American hyphenations.

For those Americans who have harboured fears that the anti-assimilation sentiment so visible among European Muslim communities may be spreading its insidious influence to America, Ingrid Mattson's election is certainly a cause for celebration. Her views on terrorism, anti-Semitism and reform within the Muslim community all represent the voice of a community committed to carving a place for itself within American society.

In her sedate and soft-spoken manner, Ingrid Mattson condemns acts of terrorism in the name of Islam with the same severity with which she comes down on Islamophobic critics who deign to indict an entire faith for the acts of a few. She is equally unequivocal in her scathing condemnation of the intolerance that permits attitudes like anti-Semitism to exist among the Muslim community.

Even more admirably, Ingrid Mattson is quick to recognise the dual challenges facing American Muslims, who must ward off criticisms emanating from Islamophobic beliefs while at the same time work for reform within their own communities.

Her message to American Muslim congregations is succinct and unapologetic: "There is no point in hiding our problems." About the preoccupation many American Muslims seem to have regarding the "image" of the community, she says, "Our goal is not to craft an image but to do the right thing." In an age when many in the American Muslim community see all criticism against it as born out of Islamophobia and all efforts towards change as promoted by anti-Islam interests, her candour is both refreshing and promising.

However, if Ingrid Mattson's persona is to be typified as the image of American Islam, it is certainly not a liberal apparition. Adhering to the strict dress code of headscarf, long-sleeved shirt and long skirt, Ingrid Mattson practises the "Muslim norms of modesty" that she preaches.

In her essay on the topic, she writes: "The Koran orders Muslim men and women to lower their gaze when speaking with the opposite sex." She advises women not only to wear headscarves but also "to adjust the ends of their headscarves to cover their chest". In keeping with the Islamic norms of modesty, she does not shake hands with men; she also feels that Muslim women should not take part in musical performances.

The most controversial and arguably ironic position of Ingrid Mattson is her unequivocal opposition to women holding positions of religious leadership within Islam. Distinguishing between religious and political leaderships, she holds that the Islamic injunction against "bida" or forms of innovation in worship must be upheld to protect the unity of the faith community around the world, even when it excludes women. Since Muslims around the world in all their cultural, linguistic and racial diversities have for centuries followed the same patterns of worship, the core unity that the uniformity of the practice entails makes innovations, in her view, unequivocally forbidden.

Ingrid Mattson's organisational solution to the consequent challenge presented by maintaining communal unity at the expense of gender exclusion is simply to create alternative forms of organisation that would allow women input in decision making if not actual religious leadership. She suggests that women can give "religious lectures" although not the traditional Friday sermon or "khutba"; women can also be made part of the decision-making process in a mosque "through female board members who represent women" even though they may never become imams.

It is possible that Ingrid Mattson's views may have much to recommend themselves to some American Muslim women, yet their contradictions cannot be explained away in every case. The theological dilemma of women's leadership represents precisely the problems encountered in reconfiguring religious belief in a liberal society where differential treatment based on gender is historically, culturally and legally considered a form of injustice. How indeed can young Muslim women, raised in America and educated in American public schools (where they are raised on a steady diet of equality of opportunity in every field), be made to digest the different approach towards gender relations within their religious community?

Ingrid Mattson has expended much scholarly effort around this problem in her entry in the Encyclopedia of Women in Islamic Cultures; she explains the Islamic legal conception of gender relations as being based on "complementarity" rather than equality. Gender complementarity, according to her, means that men and women simply fulfil different functions and are judged not on the calculus of relative power but on the relative suitability for their roles. While gender complementarity may very well be a theologically grounded and inherently just concept in itself, its problematic aspect lies in its divergence from the concepts of gender relations prevalent in the U.S.

In theological discussions on human rights, tolerance and justice, there may be precious little to present a real conflict between Islamic and liberal American perspectives. In the case of woman as "complementary" versus woman as "equal", the two conceptions present a troublesome and almost hideous incongruity.

So while Ingrid Mattson encourages Muslim girls to enter the field of Islamic theology so that women may be better represented within Islam, she must also consider the fact that many women schooled in the value of gender equality rather than complementarity may be turned away from Islam precisely because they see strictures on religious leadership as inherently unjust and stifling.

Existentially speaking, she must help American Muslim women make sense of the fact that their biological status as females makes them incapable of performing certain functions within Islam. Indeed, doing so would require addressing difficult debates about gender relations that would, among other things, also address the propriety or utility of gender segregation within centres of religious worship when no such segregation is practised in educational institutions or places of employment.

While it is true that in the current political context many American Muslim women do not find the abridgement of their choices within mosques or the wearing of headscarves as a form of oppression or gender discrimination, this may not always be the case in the U.S. The emergence of Islam as an anti-imperialist ideology and the reinterpretation of overt symbols of Islamic identity such as headscarves and gender segregation into icons of group unity and faith-based resistance have in many ways made religious conservatism appealing to many who would otherwise reject them.

However, such momentary political reinterpretations of religious symbols do not eliminate the possibility that many Muslim American women who pin their hopes on Ingrid Mattson as a harbinger of true change, a leader who would work to eliminate the contradiction between equality as an American and equality as a Muslim, will be disappointed if she does not avail herself of this incredible opportunity to engage with these pressing questions.

Rafia Zakaria is a graduate student in Political Science at Indiana University.

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