- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2001

Ingrid Mattson had her own brush with the Taliban before they came to power. Back in 1989, just out of a Canadian university, she worked in a crowded Afghan refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, teaching young girls and trying to improve conditions for their families.
"With some 100,000 refugees, it was a microcosm of most of Afghanistan," she says, "and we were able to work in the whole camp except for one small area, where the Taliban from Kandahar refused to let us teach the girls.
"Most Afghanis were perfectly happy to have their daughters educated," she adds. Her experience with the Taliban and their subsequent actions have led Mrs. Mattson a convert to Islam and now a professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut to speak out against them in Muslim circles ever since.
A small, slender woman with an arrestingly calm demeanor, Mrs. Mattson has no reluctance about speaking out on issues of import. Her articulate voice was one of the first after the September 11 terrorist attacks to call publicly on Muslims to condemn not only the attacks, but any resort to violence in the name of Islam.
"Who has the greatest duty to stop violence committed by Muslims against innocent non-Muslims in the name of Islam?" she asked. "The answer obviously is Muslims."
Her voice has been heard. This fall, she was elected by members of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), perhaps the largest and most diverse Muslim organization on the continent, to a two-year term as vice president. She is the first woman to hold that position.
It may seem surprising that a young Canadian-born convert should be the first.
"Ingrid is seen by our community as a woman par excellence, as representative of both Western and Muslim traditions," explains Sayyid Syeed, executive director of ISNA. "She is Western born and raised, but has been well educated in Islamic scholarship."
Her election has significance beyond these borders, Mr. Syeed adds. "America is giving women the role that the Koran and the Prophet had given them originally, but has been denied them for cultural reasons in many regions," he says. Women, for example, are members of executive committees of Islamic centers across the country. "To have a woman vice president is a message from the Islamic community in North America to those in other countries."
The new vice president is eager to work on ISNA priorities, such as helping to strengthen the Islamic schools across the United States, and to broaden training for the local leadership of mosques and Islamic centers.
"ISNA provides training for leaders in such skills as marriage counseling, conflict resolution and domestic-violence issues," Mrs. Mattson explains.
She also has spearheaded creation of an Islamic program to prepare men and women to work as chaplains in the military, in hospitals, in prisons or on college campuses.
The program will include a master's degree and a graduate certificate in Islamic chaplaincy through studies at interdenominational Hartford Seminary.
Given the importance to her of individual choice, Mrs. Mattson is well aware of the major questions Westerners have about religious freedom in Muslim countries and whether Muslims have the right to convert to other faiths. A few converts have had their children taken away or have been persecuted as a result. A specialist in Islamic law, Mrs. Mattson says this is an area that is now widely examined and contested.
"Many scholars have convincingly argued that apostasy is not a crime, while treason is, based on cases from the early days of Islam, where people who left the community for other religions were not punished, while those who left the political community and betrayed it were."
What has happened historically in some Muslim societies, she says, was that no distinction was made between community affiliation and religious affiliation. But today's world makes other demands, and she supports the case for separation of the two.
She and her husband, Amer Aetak, met in the refugee camp in Pakistan, where he, an Egyptian engineer, was digging wells and constructing housing. One of her most touching memories was the response of refugee families when they learned the two had married quietly.
"When they heard I hadn't had a dress, they were so sad; they pooled what little money they had and presented me with this outfit of satin pants and a red velveteen dress with pompoms it was incredible," she says. They now have a daughter, Soumayya, and a son, Ubayda, for whom her husband helped care while she completed her doctorate at the University of Chicago.

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