Ingrid MattsonWhen the Islamic Society of Northern American (ISNA) elected Ingrid Mattson, the director of the Islamic chaplaincy program at the Hartford Seminary and vice president of ISNA, as its president last week, Muslims and non-Muslims took note. Mattson is the first female to head the organization, which is the largest, most inclusive Muslim group in North America, with a sizeable political and social reach.

Mattson takes ISNA’s helm at a challenging time when American Muslims are struggling to promote their religion, encourage interfaith dialogue, create standards for their community, and separate themselves from the views of extremists. Mattson spoke with Beliefnet’s Islam editor Dilshad D. Ali about her goals for ISNA, why women’s rights isn’t her primary platform, and the new obligation American Muslims have in the fight against terrorism.

What does your election mean for the women in Muslim leadership roles? Does it have an impact on religious or spiritual leadership as well?

Certainly, it’s both things. First of all, women have been involved on the board of ISNA for many years. In fact, women were founding members of the Muslim Students Association--MSA national--more than 40 years ago. The presidency is looked at by many people as a form of religious leadership. And to that extent I do believe it’s a significant step for the Muslim community to choose a woman as a leader of this organization.

ISNA Secretary-General Sayyid Saeed was quick to say that you will lead “ritual worship” for women–and not lead prayer. What does that mean?

It means salat, the five daily prayers and the Jumaa (Friday) prayer--the congregational prayer. It doesn’t mean invocations or supplications or du’a, which are all other forms of prayer.

So you’ll lead prayer for women, but not for mixed gender groups?

That’s correct, and that’s what I’ve always done.

A lot of women are seeing this election as a victory for Muslim feminism. What does the term “Muslim feminism” mean to you?

Feminism--the idea that women have rights, that women and men should exert themselves to ensure that women have a meaningful way to achieve their rights--is a good concept. But it shouldn’t be a defining worldview. My agenda is not a narrow one of only looking at the interests of women. I’m looking at the interests of our whole community. We live in a world where we have to be concerned if anyone is suffering injustice. Muslim women shouldn’t be parochial in the sense of only being concerned about women’s issues.

One of the popular misconceptions about Islam is that women are seen as lesser figures, that they don’t have rights.

This perception that women in Islam are oppressed is based both on misinformation as well as am amplification of certain unfortunate tendencies in some parts of the Muslim world. It’s true that people have seen some Muslim authorities using Islam as a justification for the oppression or suppression of women. That’s a reality, we can’t deny it. But we have to balance those incidents with what’s going on in the rest of the Muslim world, in which most women are participating in their societies. We’ve seen that within recent times four Muslim-majority nations have had female heads of state. In most countries that I’ve traveled to, Muslim women are involved in all aspects of society.

Some conservative pundits see ISNA as a shield for shady practices, and as an organization that harbors radical thinking. What would you say to these critics?

I would say they have to support their views with evidence and not simply resort to vague conspiracy theories or general, unsubstantiated accusations. We are what we do. We’re an umbrella organization that’s inclusive of Sunni, Shi’a, and Sufi and provides a broad and open platform for all North American Muslims. And our goal is to bring the diversity of the Muslim community together so that we can get to know each other as the Qur’an compels us to. We want to offer the Muslim community the opportunity to know the greater American society, especially faith groups--to come to understand our Christian and Jewish neighbors and others and find ways that we can come together to do something good for this society.

What are your goals for ISNA? Where do you want to take the organization?

My major concern is institution-building and to emphasize the need for standards in our community. There is no ordination in Islam, no hierarchical church that determines what all communities should do. We don’t want to be that, but at the same time we can help the community develop some standards for religious leaders and our religious community. We can raise the level of professionalism in our communities and harness the energy and goodwill that is in our congregation.

Unfortunately, many of our communities are not functioning in a really dynamic and vital fashion. So we need to implement more training, provide educational opportunities for those running these institutions, and give models of successful communities that engage both their congregants and the broader community.