A little more than a year ago, in November 2011, Catholic and Muslim leaders from around the world convened in Jordan for the second forum hosted by A Common Word, an organization created in 2007 to promote interfaith engagement by highlighting similarities in the teachings of Christianity and Islam. While the inaugural forum had been held at the Vatican in 2008, this time the group met along the Jordan River, near the site of Jesus’ baptism. Among the Muslim delegates was Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian citizen, U.S. permanent resident, and convert from Catholicism who served as president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in 2006–10. She was the first woman elected to that office, and this distinction had helped propel her into the global spotlight.

The Jordan assembly was small and “very friendly,” Mattson recalls, and its main topic—shared concern over disrespect for religious symbols—a reasonably safe one. But knowing there can be barriers between two such delegations, Mattson had brought an icebreaker: her eighty-year-old Catholic mother, who was making her first trip to the Middle East. “Here we were, mother and daughter, Catholic and Muslim,” Mattson recalls. “It was interesting how we were able to humanize the relationships.” She enjoyed imagining what further interreligious overtures might have been possible had she also brought along her sister—a convert from Catholicism to Judaism.

When it comes to challenging Western stereotypes about Islam, Ingrid Mattson seems ideally cast—a Muslim, yes, but with the accent, the interests, the family life, and the hobbies of your typical educated middle-class American. While she savors literature by José Saramago, the late Portuguese Nobel Prize–winner, she’s also a fan of television’s Mad Men (“The writing is sooo good!”), Nurse Jackie, and Sons of Anarchy, about a California biker gang. She is an athlete. She’s mom to two grown children, and her husband—an Arab with dual U.S.-Canadian citizenship, whom she describes as “nurturing”—has moved throughout their marriage to accommodate her jobs. She has even broken with Islamic tradition by acquiring a dog. Muslims generally consider dogs “unclean” and unworthy of sharing a house with humans. Writing on her Huffington Post blog, Mattson explained that she drew on a Qur’anic passage about a noble dog to justify her decision.

Mattson’s résumé, including a 2009–10 stint with the Interfaith Task Force of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, has “interfaith” stamped all over it. She is the author of a book, The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life, praised for its scholarship and accessibility. Government, media, academic, and civic institutions call on her for Islamic insight into issues such as poverty, gender, race, and justice, and she is a senior fellow of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Amman. Last fall she took on a new chair in Islamic Studies at Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. But at forty-nine she has lived much of her adult life in the United States. From 1998 until this past summer, she was director of the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, an affiliate of Hartford Seminary. In a series of interviews over the course of six months, Mattson spoke with me about her spiritual journey and the challenges of being a spokesperson for a faith misunderstood and often maligned in the West.

Modesty is a virtue much prized in Islamic cultures, and, like most Muslim women, Mattson wears the headscarf known as a hijab. Because her dark hair is hidden and she does little to accentuate her dark eyes and delicate features, people don’t immediately realize how pretty she is. Her daughter sometimes chides her for appearing stern or angry in photographs, but a more apt description would be intensely focused. “There is a gravitas about her that is reassuring,” says R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and a leader in efforts to bring Muslims and Christians together. “She’s a serious person, yet also very human, approachable, and in her own way personable.”

Much has been written about Mattson’s conversion to Islam, but the fact that she grew up Catholic has usually been only a footnote. It’s something she’s eager to correct. “It’s important to me to express my gratitude for what that community gave me,” she says, crediting the Catholic women religious of her youth with providing “a fantastic education” and “a place to explore and develop this early, youthful spirituality.” With tenderness she relates how Catholicism once informed almost every aspect of her life. Mattson was born in Waterloo, Ontario, in 1963, the sixth of seven children of a criminal-defense lawyer and his wife. Her parents were both raised Catholic, and the church, in one form or another, was ubiquitous. “We lived only one block away from two full blocks of solid Catholic institutions. There was the elementary school, the girls’ high school, the boys’ high school, the nuns’ convent, and the priests’ rectory. It was just your world.”

The family attended Mass on Sundays, but didn’t say the rosary at home, or even routinely say grace. Yet as a child Mattson was devout. “I would go to church every day during Lent on my lunch break, and in Advent I would go more. In those days little kids were allowed to go around by themselves, so I would just go. Very often I would go by myself to do the Stations of the Cross. I was really into it.” A big attraction was the peace and quiet of church, the reprieve it offered from the chaos of a household of seven kids—including four boys, all of them wrestlers. The church—and especially the convent, where she took piano lessons—became Mattson’s refuge. “I’d think to myself, ‘Oh, it’s so clean, so neat, so organized.’ I loved it that the convent was just a bunch of women living together. No one was going to put me into a headlock there!” And the sheer beauty of church buildings lit up Mattson’s inner life. “I had a very natural spiritual orientation that was supported by the majestic spaces in the church, and by ritual. I found them to be good venues for that spiritual connection.”

Mattson’s father died just before she turned thirteen, and at fourteen she got her first job (as a waitress). In her teen years, she excelled on her school’s hockey and swimming teams, and in her spare time read Leonard Cohen and boycotted South African fruit to protest apartheid. It was during those years that her enchantment with Catholicism came to an abrupt end—in the classroom, where she resisted her religion class’s teachings about God and the requirements of Christian faith. “It was the introduction of doctrine that really messed things up,” she says. “It didn’t register. I don’t remember if it was about salvation, or the Trinity...but it had nothing to do with the way I felt, and my experiences intellectually. It wasn’t convincing.” When her teacher wouldn’t or couldn’t answer her questions, Mattson turned to the school priest. “It was funny,” she says. “He just told me that I’d figure it out.”

What Mattson figured out was that she had to leave the church. “I no longer believed in Christian theology. Most important, I did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. There was never any question, therefore, that Christianity would ever again be an option for me.” When her mother noticed she had stopped taking Communion, Mattson explained that it felt hypocritical to do something so meaningful to others when she herself didn’t believe in it. “My mother asked what I did believe in,” she recalls, “and I said I didn’t know. She said ‘I hope you find it.’ That was her prayer.”

Eventually she would find it, but right then, Mattson recalls, “I just left the whole thing and didn’t think much about it. I forgot about God altogether.” At the University of Waterloo, she majored in fine arts and philosophy, eventually writing her senior thesis on the Bayeux Tapestry. In the summer before her senior year, she visited Europe, taking a film course in Paris. She brought her bike, and after the course ended she set out to see the country; along the way she befriended a group of Muslim students from Senegal and Mauritania she met at an outdoor concert. They were her first exposure to Islam. She followed them to West African dance clubs and listened to them discuss authors they were reading, including Frantz Fanon and his impassioned indictment of colonialism, The Wretched of the Earth. Mattson was captivated by the group’s company and conversation. “A lot of them spoke Arabic to each other even if that wasn’t their mother tongue. I like languages, and I realized there was this language that a gigantic part of the world speaks that I knew nothing about.”

Back in Waterloo, she enrolled in an Arabic course. She was curious about Islam, and her teachers gave her a translation of part of the Qur’an. The Arabic language is celebrated for its beauty, and nowhere is this beauty more evident than in the Qur’an. But as Mattson read, something beyond linguistic beauty took hold of her. It was a momentous feeling, she recalls; “an awareness of God, for the first time since I was very young.” It wasn’t something she welcomed—“I really didn’t want to have to deal with religion in my life. I wasn’t looking for that”—and she tried to ignore it. The feeling persisted, however, and eventually she yielded. “I realized that it would be hypocritical of me to just pretend it wasn’t there. So then I started really to embrace it.”

In time the feeling became a full-fledged reawakening. There was no question of revisiting Catholicism or exploring other religions. “It was the Qur’an that gave me back faith in God,” Mattson says. “I recognized the God of the Qur’an as the God I had always known but had forgotten and neglected.” The Qur’an also resonated with her intellectually. While Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet, in Islam no human being can be considered divine. And so while Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was God’s ultimate messenger, they do not worship him as Christians do Jesus Christ. This principle helped ease the theological difficulties Mattson had experienced as a teenager.

Conversion to Islam involves making a declaration of faith before witnesses, and Mattson declared in the spring of 1987, in the home of two teachers. No one in her family was present, and their absence expressed skepticism about the step Mattson was taking. “Most of them,” she recalls, “didn’t really think it would stick.”

And the transition did prove difficult. Explaining her conversion to friends and acquaintances—some of whom thought Islam was a cult—was hard. Then there was the question of how to conduct her social and personal life. Mattson had to resist “some really bad advice” from strict Muslims who told her, among other things, never to be in a place where there was alcohol—including her family’s home. She could not embrace such strictness. If she had been married with children, says Mattson, it might have been easier. But she was still in college—and in a city, she notes wryly, that was home to the world’s second biggest Oktoberfest. “I didn’t want to make these big barriers between myself and my family and friends who weren’t Muslim.”

Searching for the intellectual means to bring her two worlds together, she found them in the writings of University of Chicago professor Fazlur Rahman (1911–88), a Pakistani scholar who contended that the Qur’an can be reinterpreted for modern societies. “He was a modernist,” says Mattson. “He wanted people to understand that premodern Islamic terms couldn’t necessarily be applied to modern concepts.” Rahman taught that “even though Scripture is the eternal word of God, attention must be paid to the context of the reception.” He became Mattson’s intellectual mentor, and she chose a PhD program at the University of Chicago in the hope of studying with him.

But first she spent a year in Pakistan, sent by a Canadian Muslim organization to work with refugees from the war in Afghanistan. The work was fulfilling—Mattson helped arrange a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency to train midwives in a refugee camp of a hundred thousand—but she found Pakistan rife with “extremists and fundamentalists.” “In many ways it inoculated me from having a so-called romanticized view of the Muslim world,” she says. “It gave me a clearer understanding that Islam isn’t necessarily more authentic in Muslim majority countries.” Mattson cites a hadith,* or saying of the Prophet Muhammad: There is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab and for a non-Arab over an Arab, nor for the white over the black nor for the black over the white, except in piety. Her Pakistan experience confirmed the truth of the hadith, dissuading her of the notion that “authentic learning” could only be found in non-Western places. She returned wiser—and also happier, having met her husband, a fellow volunteer at the refugee camp. They married in Pakistan.

Mattson spent most of the 1990s in Chicago, working toward her PhD (in Islamic law and history) and raising two young children. Shortly before receiving her degree in 1999, she was offered the job of director of Hartford Seminary’s Macdonald Center. Along with teaching courses in Islamic studies, she would develop the first nonmilitary Muslim chaplaincy program in the United States. For Mattson it was a dream job, allowing her to continue her academic work while serving the larger community of Muslims in America.

And so in 1998 she moved her family to Connecticut. By all accounts, her work at the seminary was highly successful. Omer Bajwa, coordinator of Muslim Life for the Chaplain’s Office at Yale University, studied with Mattson while earning his graduate certificate in Islamic chaplaincy from Hartford Seminary. He praises her as “a great mentor” and credits her with “embryonic support” for the very idea of Muslim chaplaincy. Patrice Brodeur, a Catholic who holds the Canada Research Chair on Islam, Pluralism, and Globalization at the University of Montreal, and who worked with Mattson on The Muslim World journal, lists the qualities that distinguish her as a leader: a deep knowledge of her own faith and a solid commitment to it; extensive familiarity with other faiths and a willingness to engage with them; and a desire to improve quality of life for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

In 2001 Mattson became the first woman elected vice president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). She assumed the volunteer post in August, anticipating a demanding but not all-consuming second job. Then came September 11. Islamophobia suddenly entered the mainstream lexicon, and her life became an endless exercise in crisis management. “I slept with my BlackBerry, and was always getting up to respond to something.” Paradoxically, 9/11 helped boost Mattson’s prominence as a spokesperson for Islam. Absent the crisis caused by the attacks, she speculates, some conservative Muslims might have resisted a non-Arab woman as the public face of the religion. And non-Muslims, primed to see Muslim men as terrorists-in-waiting, were more receptive to a woman. Yale’s Bajwa says there’s no question that most non-Muslims would be more comfortable with her than with “someone who looks like me, a young Islamic male of South Asian descent with a large black beard.”

Mattson recalls the period following the attacks as a hard one for Muslims in this country. In 2002, the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services ordered all men from any of twenty-five countries to report to an immigration office and have their papers checked. “All of these countries were Muslim countries except North Korea.” In Mattson’s view, this was plain religious discrimination disguised as national security. One positive development after 9/11, on the other hand, was the emergence of allies and friends in the civil-rights and the interfaith communities—“people who really stood beside us,” Mattson says, and whose efforts helped teach Muslims “what it meant to have shared values and shared principles and to be in solidarity with other people.” Before 9/11, many Muslims were “standoffish” and “fairly isolated in their socially contained world.” But 9/11 taught them the importance of being part of broader society.

A decade later, the events of the “Arab Spring” have finally put the lie, in Mattson’s view, to the notion that Arabs hate the West for its freedoms. “For American Muslims after 9/11, because of the constant questioning of their loyalty, we were very keen to emphasize our American-ness, that ‘we are good, and it’s the rest of the Muslim world that’s messed up.’ Now we’re able to point to tens of millions of Muslims who want the same things that we do.”

Being the public face of Islam in America has exposed Mattson to harsh criticism. In an article posted on the conservative blog American Thinker, Stephen Schwartz—like Mattson a convert to Islam—blasted her as “a promoter of radical Islam” after she spoke out against the needless provocation of a proposed Oklahoma law banning the use of sharia, or Qur’anic law, in the state’s courts. Schwartz wrote that Mattson’s conception of sharia as “a whole set of approaches to living your life in a way that brings you closer to God” was a “sweeping definition” rejected by moderate Muslims, who apply sharia only to “intimate religious matters” such as diet, prayer, and other rituals. Schwartz wrote that Mattson’s “specific citizenship may be unknown,” yet “when she appeared as a Muslim representative at the inauguration of Barack Obama, Mattson presumably acted as an American.” According to Schwartz, Mattson, and ISNA embrace a variety of Islam that is “fundamentalist and radical, oriented toward Saudi Wahhabism, Pakistani jihadism, and the Muslim Brotherhood;” her covert goal is “to advance radical Islam with a North American face.” Daniel Pipes, founder of the Middle East Forum and a prominent backer of Israel, has called ISNA “a key component of the Wahhabi lobby” and Mattson “an apologist for Wahhabism.”

Such accusations sting. Mattson insists that they are baseless, and that the West’s anxiety about Islam arises from a profound misconception; the fear that Islam wants to destroy democracy and liberal Western values, she says, is “a lot of hysteria that’s not based in reality.” People “will cherry-pick a statement from some extremist or some twelfth-century text,” she complains, “but Muslims didn’t stop thinking and developing in the twelfth century.” She argues that sharia is “a concept, not a codified set of laws, so there’s a lot of diversity” globally in its application and emphasis. “I have all these law books, and there’s no book called ‘Islamic Laws.’”

An essay Mattson wrote soon after 9/11 for Beliefnet describes the “double-bind” she sees American Muslims in—having to apologize for “reprehensible actions committed by Muslims in the name of Islam” such as terrorism, oppression of women, and persecution of religious minorities, while also having to apologize for U.S. foreign policy, including “support for repressive governments” and opposition to any UN resolution critical of Israel. It is an uncomfortable position. “But frankly,” Mattson concludes in the essay, “American Muslims have generally been more critical of injustices committed by the American government than of injustices committed by Muslims.” This has to change, Mattson argues. “Because we have freedom and wealth, we have a special obligation to help those Muslims who do not—by speaking out against the abuses of Muslim ‘leaders’ in other countries.”

From within this double-bind, Mattson searches for a middle road between polarized viewpoints. Concerning the 2005 controversy over a Danish newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist, she condemns the violence that subsequently erupted—but wonders why Denmark’s blasphemy laws were not applied. “People can be taken to court for speaking against the Danish Church, so the question was, can’t that be extended to other religions?” This past summer, when an internet trailer for a cartoonish video mocking the Prophet Muhammad, produced in the United States, once again ignited the issue, Mattson recognized the issues of free speech at stake. She doesn’t believe that the U.S. government can or should do anything to stop such material being put on the internet. “But many people in much of the Muslim world won’t understand that, because they live in countries where the government can censor information.” An understanding of freedom of speech in Muslim countries is closely linked to higher levels of education and literacy, she notes, “and that is the long-term solution”—and American Muslims have a “special obligation” to help it along.

For all the criticism she received during her years in the United States, Mattson clearly relishes not only having lived in the world’s greatest melting pot but also being a Muslim here. A favorite book of hers is Richard W. Bulliet’s Islam: The View from the Edge, which posits that the most fruitful evolutions in Islamic civilization often take place far from the center. Mattson sees America as one of those vital edge realms. “When you’re in a culture that for generations has been Muslim,” she points out, “almost every norm, even if it’s just cultural, acquires a religious justification or hue. But when you move into areas where that’s not the case, you have to start making distinctions between religion and culture.” What results is a more conscious and well-thought-out form of the faith. “What do we think about the right way to dress, or how the family should be constituted, whether the mother works outside the home or not, and the extent to which a father is involved with his children’s upbringing? We are forced to have these discussions because of our diversity, and I think that makes the American community very dynamic.”

Mattson pays attention to the ways religions throughout history have been interpreted and wielded, even twisted, for various personal and collective ends. “It’s a perennial issue with any scriptural tradition,” she says. The second edition of her book on the Qur’an has an expanded focus on hermeneutics (interpretation theory), taking specific verses of the Qur’an and demonstrating how different scholars have interpreted them differently. Because passages from the Qur’an are so often used to stoke fear of the religion, I asked her for simple answers to some of the thorniest questions Americans raise about Islam. Does it in fact countenance forcing people to join the faith? Does it advocate killing those who reject or leave it? And is polygamy allowed?

Her answers are: No, No, and Yes. But she insists it isn’t at all simple. On the first two questions, she points out that the Qur’an plainly states “There is no compulsion in religion.” Yes, it also contains an injunction to “kill the idolaters wherever you find them.” But the context of this command, Mattson argues, is not daily life as we know it today, but a battle between warring groups in a premodern world where religious and political allegiances and identities were indistinguishable. People in that world didn’t leave their community “just to wander around,” but rather to join another group, often amidst hostilities. Leaving one’s religion was thus tantamount to treason, a capital offense in most countries even today. There are still Muslims who advocate death for abandoning the faith. But most modern Islamic scholars, says Mattson, agree “that the Qur’an gives no earthly punishment for leaving one’s faith.”

As for polygamy, practiced by the Prophet Muhammad—and by both Barack Obama’s Kenyan father and Mitt Romney’s Mormon grandfather—it is indeed allowed in Islam. But Mattson contends that the Qur’an’s “ethical thrust” has always been toward monogamy. In premodern times, she explains, polygamy was often practiced as a means to care for widows, or for girls who were orphaned. The existence of restrictions indicates that polygamy was never considered an ideal state, and Mattson argues that you can outlaw it while remaining faithful to the Qur’an if the conditions that originally prompted it no longer exist. “Most people, most men even, don’t want polygamy,” says Mattson. “It’s not like having a mistress...marriage is about responsibilities, kids. Most people find it challenging enough to have one spouse and a few kids.”

Such views reflect Mattson’s ongoing project of reassuring non-Muslim Americans and reducing their distrust of Islam. She is a resourceful and persuasive defender of the faith, frequently summoning stories and events in the news that may be counterintuitive to Americans who have come to see Islam as a harshly punitive and unforgiving religion. She argues, for instance, that if the U.S. courts and legal scholars did actually look to Islam and sharia for legal guidance, they would find an emphasis on forgiveness, as well as on individual rights. Take, for example, the contentious issue of capital punishment. Islam allows the victim’s family’s wishes to be considered in sentencing, says Mattson—and teaches that while retaliation is permissible, “it is better to forgive.” She points to the case of the Bangladeshi-American Muslim Rais Bhuiyan, who tried to stop the execution of a Texas man who had shot him in the face in an act of random retribution for the 9/11 attacks. Though partially blinded in the shooting, Bhuiyan chose forgiveness after contemplating the Qur’an during a pilgrimage to Mecca. He even persuaded the families of two Muslims killed in the same Texan’s shooting spree to join his petition to stop the execution. The state of Texas prevailed, and the killer, a white supremacist, was put to death in 2011. But before he died he said that Bhuiyan’s intervention had made him feel loved for the first time. The killer himself was the victim of a horrible life, say Mattson, and because of Bhuiyan’s attempt to save him, “He felt love at last. It’s a beautiful story.”

Such stories counter what Mattson considers the U.S. media’s excessive focus on grotesque tales of vengeance in Muslim countries carried out by extremists claiming to implement sharia. As for the charges of antidemocratic tendencies in Islam, including the suppression of speech and culture, she points to the experience of hundreds of millions of Muslims in Muslim-majority democracies like Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Kyrgyzstan, or nations on the perilous road to democracy, like Egypt. Most Muslim-majority democracies “have been able to accommodate a robust freedom of religion and conscience,” she asserts, “even if it says ‘Islam’ somewhere in the constitution.” On Islam’s views of cultural freedoms, Mattson reverts to the Qur’an’s “no compulsion in religion” clause. Take alcohol, for example. While it is strictly forbidden in the Qur’an, Mattson embraces the views of Muslims who argue that to ban it for non-Muslims would be akin to compelling them to adopt Islam. Arguments have even surfaced that since the Qur’an’s prohibition specifically refers to “the grape,” other types of alcoholic drinks are permitted. Mattson rejects that view, citing it as "an example of the kind of radical 'reinterpretation' of the Qur'an that can occur even in Muslim countries."** If anything is conclusive about this, it’s that Muslims argue about social rights and obligations just like everyone else.

Regarding the claim that Islam subjugates women to men, Mattson notes that Bangladesh, Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan have all had female heads of state—and that her own organization, ISNA, elected a woman to lead it. Polls on gender issues in religion show that Muslims are “just behind Jews in having the most educated women,” she points out, while “a third of Muslim-American women are professionals, and they have the most economic parity with men.” The view that men can dominate the public life of the community “is simply incorrect Qur’anically,” she says.

So what about Saudi Arabia, where women can’t legally drive, go out in public unveiled, or travel without a man’s permission, and just last year were granted the right to vote (and only in municipal elections)? It’s not a representative example, Mattson insists—while noting that even in Saudi Arabia, women outnumber men in higher education. She prefers to focus on Turkey and the emergence there of a middle class she views as “religious and activist-oriented.” At the Hartford Seminary she came to know a number of students from that movement, and admired their zeal for going out to educate other Muslims around the world. These groups of Muslim evangelists remind Mattson of Rotary Clubs. “They’re a completely different alternative to the Saudis—very business-oriented, religiously conservative and focused on family, but not extremist or militant or misogynist. They have an integrationist, bourgeois view.”

Mattson acknowledges other points of conflict between Islam and the liberalism of American life—such as issues of sexuality, on which most Muslims are very conservative. Sexual intimacy outside marriage is forbidden; and as for gay rights, she admits that the Qur’an seems “pretty explicit in saying that homosexual intimacy is not permissible.” Less clear is how this theological view should play out, if at all, in legal spheres and public life. “A surprising number of [Western] Muslims believe the state should not discriminate against same-sex couples in marriage,” Mattson contends. “The state should afford equal rights to people and not make public policy on the basis of a theological proposition.” This belief, she notes, springs directly from the experience of being a religious minority, fearful of being discriminated against themselves. “A lot of people don’t like what we believe or practice.”

Regarding abortion, Mattson explains that the Qur’an discusses stages of fetal growth in minute detail, with “a clear sense that a certain amount of physical development occurs before the soul is breathed into this developing life. There’s life before there’s a soul, so the question is pinpointing when the soul enters.” Abortion after the ensoulment is prohibited except to save the life of the mother—an exception made “because the mother has existing responsibilities and relationships that take priority over a human being that has the potential for those but hasn’t developed them.” Contraception has always been allowed in Islam, she says, noting with a grin that when men asked the Prophet Muhammad about the withdrawal method, he told them it was fine—but “not to count on it working!”

This past June, Mattson taught her final course at Hartford Seminary—“Women in Islam”—and prepared to leave the United States for Canada, her native land. Patrice Brodeur, the Toronto professor, predicts that she will face many of the same challenges there as she has here, plus one. Whatever happens in France reverberates in French-speaking Quebec, and France has had major conflicts with its Muslim population over its bans on headscarves in public schools and the burqa, or Islamic face veil, in all public spaces. Mattson opposes these bans as violations of religious freedom, and is sure to make this position known, in her serenely diplomatic way.

The day of our last meeting Mattson herself was wearing a colorful hijab and casual pants with a bold modern print—an emblematic outfit for this woman whose life has so vividly combined two cultures and traditions. When I complimented her hijab, she recalled a visit some years ago to Indonesia. “One of the things I loved about Indonesia,” she said, “was seeing these cute girls, young women wearing miniskirts and blouses and riding scooters, pull up to a mosque and grab a scarf out of their backpacks.” She laughed, recalling the image with obvious pleasure. “Vive la différence!” she said.


*A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to this as a "sura."

**This sentence was not included in the original version of this article and has been added for clarity.  

 


Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the 2013-02-22 issue: 

Bethe Dufresne, a frequent contributor, is a freelance writer living in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

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