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November 6, 2011

Dr. Ingrid Mattson: a voice for tolerance and diversity

Scott Stockdale

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Dr. Ingrid Mattson, an advisor to both the Bush and Obama administrations, and the inaugural London and Windsor community chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College, said Islam has a pretty simple message.

“Human beings are not at the centre of all being, God is; but we have been given the responsibility for caring for much of creation. We are not “self-made” men and women, so we should only be grateful for anything we can accomplish and we are held accountable for all that we are given. This message of ethical transcendence, if sincerely embraced, directs a person to be kind, generous and courageous – that's a pretty good way to live.”

As the chair of the Islamic Studies program at Huron University College, Dr. Mattson said her most important job is simply to develop a good program in Islamic Studies for the students to give them an understanding of the history of Islam and the diverse beliefs and practices of Muslims over time.

“From that foundation, I want to work with my colleagues to contribute to the Abrahamic dialogue at the College and beyond,” Dr. Mattson said.

Dr. Mattson completed her second term as Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) president last year and now serves on the Executive Council as immediate past president.  INSA`s mission statement states that it is “an association of Muslim organizations and individuals that provides a common platform for presenting Islam, supporting Muslim communities, developing educational, social and outreach programs and fostering good relations with other religious communities, and civic and service organizations.”

In keeping with ISNA`s mission statement, Dr. Mattson cited a couple of goals she worked hard to achieve while ISNA president.

“The first goal was to bring more diverse leadership and staff into the organization, so that ISNA would better reflect the diversity of the American Muslim community. This meant lifting up more women, younger people and ethnic groups to speak at our programs and to participate in committees, so they could acquire the expertise and visibility to grow as leaders. A second goal was to greatly expand our interfaith partnerships and participation in civic society.”

 During her time as president, ISNA also established its Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances in Washington D.C., which Dr. Mattson said developed many effective programs, including major programs with major Jewish religious organizations, including the Union for Reform Judaism and the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York (Conservative Judaism).

“We were a founding member of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and we partnered with other faith-based groups to advocate for universal health care and other good causes.”

While extremist views and deeds are what tend to make the news – especially if they can be given an Islamic context – extremists exist in all faiths, and their views are seldom, if ever, indicative of the true meaning of the faith they claim to be acting in the name of. 

Dr. Mattson notes that there are Muslims who are exceedingly intolerant of non-Muslims, and usually, these people are equally intolerant of Muslims who do not share their precise beliefs and practices. However, she added that these Muslims are not the majority.

“It is my belief that the Quran is clear that all human beings are brothers and sisters as ‘Children of Adam’ who are endowed with the dignity of free will by God. The Quran also clearly puts Muslims in community with other people of faith who are described as ‘believers’ or ‘the People of the Book’. Muslims should not see their faith identity as dichotomous, but as one circle of community within others.”

In September of 2010, in Washington D.C., Dr. Mattson joined friends from many faiths to denounce the increasing anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions that she said broke out ``like a raging fire`` that summer.

“It was a very moving day because we had Evangelical leaders, Jewish leaders, Catholic leaders and others telling their own communities and public officials that the attacks on Muslims were hateful, harmful, and that they would not stand silently while we were attacked.”

John Brennan, the U.S. Advisor for Homeland Security, who has relied on Dr. Mattson for advice, described her as “a voice for tolerance and diversity.” 

“I think one of the main contributions I could make as a scholar of Islamic thought and history is to contextualize some of the movements to show that the majority of Muslims have always found ways to marginalize extremists when they could pay attention to the basic human and spiritual needs of their communities. If ordinary Muslims and communities are being harassed and victimized by the government, that is when problems arise.”

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