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Muslim convert takes on leadership role

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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 led Dr. 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, Mattson has no reluctance about speaking out on issues of import. Her articulate voice was one of the first after the Sept. 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."

And her voice is one that is heard. Earlier 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."

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