Ingrid Mattson, a professor of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations at Hartford Seminary, recently ended a term as the first female and first Muslim convert to serve as president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). But she promises to continue her career as a promoter of radical Islam.
As an example of her ideological commitment, Mattson is advertised as a prominent participant in a conference to be held at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis/St. Paul on February 24/26, 2011. The conference program is breathtaking in its triumphalist view of Islam and its relations with the world. Titled “Shared Cultural Spaces” and benefiting from a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) — paid for by federal tax revenue — the Minnesota conference program announces very little that is “shared” by Islam and other cultures, but rather is replete with uncritical glorification of Islamic history.
Thus, Nabil Matar, a professor of English at Minnesota, commented, “At a time when other parts of the world were in their ‘dark ages,’ in Islamic civilizations there were artists, scientists, writers and architects who created a world of imagination, openness (as they included Christians and Jews as well) and brilliance. The conference will show how Islamic cultural imagination continues to enrich contemporary life.” While such a claim is problematical in its exclusion of all non-Muslim intellectual achievements during the “dark ages,” it is absurd in its supposition that the Islamic imagination retains a leading role in global culture.
Mattson is included as a participant in the Minnesota conference based on her work in “Islamic law and ethics, as well as gender and leadership issues in contemporary Muslim communities.” These topics appear as euphemisms for discussion of Sharia law and the status of women in Islam, the two issues in Muslim societies which are especially controversial for non-Muslims. Such matters are outstanding in their relevance for the future of Islam, and a debate about them involving Muslim leaders like Mattson is profoundly necessary.
But will Mattson, at an event sponsored by the federal NEH, address Sharia and the status of women in a candid way? Will she illuminate the drive to expand Sharia as common law in the Muslim and non-Muslim lands, or the protests of Muslim women and enlightened Muslim men against female subjection and victimization by such practices as so-called “honor” murder and female genital mutilation (FGM)? While such atrocious patterns in the treatment of women do not originate in Islam, they have been assimilated into its sociology in many parts of the world.
One may hope for Mattson to suddenly adopt a challenging attitude to retrograde legal and gender standards among Muslims, but judging from her long-established activities, such an expectation would surely bring disappointment.
Regarding Sharia, on January 29, Mattson journeyed to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where local voters statewide attempted to vote in a ban on “considering or using” Islamic Sharia law or “international law” in state courts. While the Oklahoma measure has been blocked by a federal court order, Mattson intended to “explain” Sharia at the 24th annual Knippa Interfaith/Ecumenical Lecture Series at Grace Lutheran Church.
Many moderate Muslims around the world believe that Sharia, or religious law, is limited in its applicability to intimate religious matters that do not impinge on or otherwise affect others, such as diet, male circumcision, forms of prayer and other rituals, fasting, fixing of charity payments, and burial. But in her discussion of Sharia in an interview with the Tulsa World, prior to her lecture, Mattson defined Sharia according to the sweeping definition put forward by Islamists: “Shariah means the sacred law, a whole set of approaches to living your life in a way that brings you closer to God.” She went on to include “business and medical ethics” as Sharia concerns. Indeed, questioned about Sharia and homosexuality, Mattson commented gratuitously, “A bigger area of concern for many Muslims is financial law.” She then condemned financial practices barred by Islamic law, such as the reselling of debt, as “schemes that got us into this recession.” This intimation that Sharia-based finance offers a positive alternative in the aftermath of the global recession is a dangerously demagogic aspect of her rhetoric and an extension to recent Islamist efforts to expand the influence of Sharia-based economics.
When asked about Sharia and personal religious choice, such as conversion by Muslims to other faiths, Mattson demonstrated her talent for untruthful improvisation by claiming, “Usually, Muslim scholars say it is sinful, but legal, to convert.” Unfortunately, “waiving” of Islamic legal prohibitions against conversion of born Muslims to differing religions is visible only in limited areas, mainly in the West. Mattson’s inventive assertion that Muslim scholars “usually” treat conversion out of Islam as a violation of Muslim religious belief but nevertheless permissible is a wholesale invention. The exact opposite is true: the great majority of Muslim scholars and believers continue to treat departure from the religion or adoption of another faith as an offense meriting death. Considering the frequency with which allegations of apostasy through conversion result in violent incidents across the Islamic lands, and the attention given to them in global media, Mattson’s insouciance on this issue is repugnant.
Mattson is nothing if not diverse. She is described as an American Muslim when speaking to such U.S. periodicals as the New York Times, and, having been born in Kitchener, Ontario, she is identified as a Canadian Muslim in such north-of-the-border media as the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, published in the broad prairie province of Saskatchewan.
Although her specific citizenship may be unknown, when she appeared as a Muslim representative at the inauguration of Barack Obama, Mattson presumably acted as an American. Regardless of her citizenship, Mattson is consistent on one important issue: the variety of Islam she has embraced which, as represented by ISNA, is fundamentalist and radical, oriented toward Saudi Wahhabism, Pakistani jihadism, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
ISNA itself avers on its official website that, “the Department of Justice named ISNA on a list of ‘unindicted co-conspirators’ in the federal terrorism prosecution of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development.” The Holy Land Foundation (HLF) case ended in 2008 with the conviction of five HLF officials on 108 charges of supporting a foreign terrorist organization, i.e. Hamas, as well as financial and tax violations.
Like Mattson, ISNA has equivocal origins, about which it has grown coy. Its website no longer features the organization’s foundation and history in a prominent place. Nevertheless, a look at ISNA’s Facebook page reveals information appearing on Wikipedia, identifying ISNA as created in 1982 and based in the Muslim Students’ Association of the U.S. and Canada (MSA), which was founded in 1963. By that account, “ISNA regards the MSA’s 1963 convention as its first one.” According to Washington Post reporter John Mintz, Egyptian-born, Qatar-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi, perhaps the most famous fundamentalist preacher in Islamic lands, described in a 1995 speech delivered in Ohio how supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood proposed to Islamize the U.S. through the activities of MSA and ISNA. (Al-Qaradawi is now banned from entering the U.S. and Britain.)
Mattson’s radical record includes endorsement of the “Islamic reformation” image projected by the adherents of Saudi Wahhabism (even though Wahhabism is the theological inspiration for al-Qaeda), false claims that Wahhabi clerics have uniformly denounced terrorism, and denial that terrorist cells operate in the U.S. In the immediate aftermath of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, Mattson joined in efforts by academia and media to distance Islam from terrorism. As described by Washington Times religion writer Larry Witham in reportage published on September 24, 2001, Mattson hurried to articulate the claim that armed jihad refers only to “defensive” combat. It is appalling that a leading academic on Islam, with credibility in the White House and other exalted venues, should have supported this deliberate falsification of Islamic history; armed jihad to spread Islam is a well-established concept in Muslim theology.
Mattson’s views have not changed in the years since 9/11. With the recent end of her term as ISNA president, Mattson remains devoted to putting out the flames of discontent over radical Islam wherever opposition to its ambitions may appear. These efforts demonstrate Mattson’s determination to build on the fame she gained while leading ISNA to advance radical Islam with a North American face.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He was institutional historian of the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004-06. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.