WORCESTER— For Ingrid Mattson, the reality of being a Muslim in the post 9-11 world hit very close to home about two years ago when her teenage son planned to accompany a friend on a visit to relatives in Florida.
Noticing some anxiety in her boy, Ms. Mattson, a convert who is the newly elected president of the Islamic Society of North America, asked if there was something wrong.
"He said he was worried about what his friend's grandparents would think of him," said Ms. Mattson, noting that her son believed that many were equating Muslims with terrorists.
Ms. Mattson, the keynote speaker at the Mayor's Prayer Breakfast, held yesterday at the Beechwood Hotel, said misconceptions and fears about Muslims will continue until individuals of other faiths try to get a better understanding of Islam.
Muslims, she said, also have to reach out and work with other religions.
"We all very often spin half-truths," said Ms. Mattson, a professor of Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim religion at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, adding that it's especially important that "we all come together in these tough times."
The Canadian native said turbulence has marked relations between Christians and Muslims over the years, but she added that there have also been times of peaceful coexistence when members of both religions successfully traded and shared in each other's culture.
The events of 9-11 sowed seeds of mistrust, she said, and Muslims were particularly hurt that the terrorists carried out the catastrophic acts in the name of their religion.
Ms. Mattson, who is also the director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at the Hartford Seminary, said that studies show 9-11 had a profound effect on Muslim youth.
"Muslim kids have it tough now," she said, noting many suffer from mental stress and depression. "They're very conscious about being different."
Ms. Mattson, who worked in Pakistan in 1987 and 1988 with Afghan refugee women, said it's unfair for individuals to scrutinize Muslim youths.
"They're not spokesmen (for Islam). They're just kids," said Ms. Mattson, noting that all teenagers go out of their way to make sure they don't stand out.
Ms. Mattson, the associate editor of "The Muslim World," said there will be peace among all religions if individuals make an attempt to know one another.
"We need to have good facts," she said. "We have to search for the truth."
Ms. Mattson said individuals will be rewarded for their efforts, even if they only get a partial understanding of other faiths.
"Whether we're religious or secular, we can never grasp the full truth," Ms. Mattson said. "That's why we need each other."
She said individuals should not tolerate distortions and added that religions "have to come to grips with our past, good and bad."
Ms. Mattson said that Karen Armstrong, a theologian, noted in a recent book that religious people, who are critical of other faiths, have forgotten where they've "transcended from."
"They've lost the path," she said.
Ms. Mattson, who earned her doctorate in Islamic Studies from the University of Chicago in 1999, said that it is important to examine religious and other institutions to ensure they reflect values.
"It is honesty that will unite us," she said.
She said faith traditions are important because they are rocks upon which spirituality is built.
The Mayor's Breakfast has been held over the past few years in an attempt to bring together people of diverse backgrounds for a morning of fellowship.
The event is organized by the Interreligious Forum of Worcester and is modeled on the National Prayer Breakfast, which is held annually in Washington, D.C.
Mayor Timothy P. Murray, in opening remarks, said the breakfast's purpose is to stimulate dialogue among the faiths and to prompt action within the community like the unity walk at Elm Park that was sponsored by students disgusted with vandalism at a local school.
"The kids get it," Mr. Murray said.