Ingrid Mattson knows people are already criticizing Sen. Barack Obama and the Democrats for inviting her to a gathering of religious leaders in Denver today -- on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.
But Mattson, president of the Plainfield-based Islamic Society of North America, said her inclusion reflects a simple reality: Muslims are part of America's religious landscape and ISNA is the largest Muslim organization in America.
"I welcome the opportunity. I welcome the recognition that it brings to American Muslims," said Mattson, a 45-year-old Canadian-born convert. She became ISNA's first female president in 2006.
Mattson will be just one of dozens of religious leaders from various faiths whom Democrats have invited to take part in events surrounding the convention. Each night's made-for-TV showpieces will open and close with prayers offered by an assortment of clergy. And today's interfaith gathering -- scheduled for the afternoon -- is far removed from the lights of prime time.
But for Obama the inclusion of Mattson -- or any Muslim -- in close proximity to the convention isn't without consequence. Despite Obama's frequent statements about his Christian faith and the controversy over Obama's former pastor, one in 10 Americans still believes Obama is a Muslim, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.
Along with the appearance by Mattson and a Denver imam today, the Democrats will hold a meeting Monday afternoon of the American Muslim Democratic Caucus, which is expected to include more than 40 Muslim delegates, one of them U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indianapolis.
"It may not be the wisest thing for evangelical onlookers who mistrust Muslims," said Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "On the other hand, there are a lot of Muslim voters who will appreciate this."
The Obama campaign did not respond to requests to discuss Mattson's appearance. But a general statement about the convention's attention to matters of faith said that "Obama is a committed Christian and he believes that people of all faiths have an important place in American life."
As a way to appeal to Muslim Americans, Obama could do a lot worse than reaching out to ISNA.
As an umbrella for various Muslim organizations, ISNA is affiliated with more than 300 mosques and Islamic centers around the country. Its annual Labor Day convention, to be held this year in Columbus, Ohio, draws more than 30,000 Muslims.
But ISNA isn't without its detractors.
It has been a frequent target of attacks from bloggers and authors who specialize in criticizing Muslim groups.
Last month, author and frequent ISNA critic Steven Emerson testified before a House subcommittee that FBI investigations in the 1980s linked ISNA to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group with a violent past. Last year, federal prosecutors in a Texas terrorism case referred to ISNA in court documents as an unindicted co-conspirator.
ISNA has long denied any involvement with covert or illegal activity. It says it is not part of the Muslim Brotherhood and is suing to get the co-conspirator reference expunged from court documents.
It has signed off on declarations calling terrorism un-Islamic, built partnerships with Jewish groups and worked with the State Department, Homeland Security and the FBI as they seek to get Muslim help in fighting terrorism. ISNA representatives have even visited the White House and received visits from top administration officials, including former Bush adviser Karen Hughes.
Mattson said the lingering criticism of ISNA is similar to the campaign of innuendo about Obama's Muslim roots. She and other Muslims have long been convinced that Obama is not a Muslim and never has been. But that hasn't stopped the rumors.
"They use this same kind of guilt by association and remote linking to individuals through others, raising questions that have no basis in fact," she said. "It shows, unfortunately, how deeply embedded fear of Muslims is in much of society."
While polls show that a majority of Muslims are leaning toward Obama in this election, Mattson said she and ISNA, a nonprofit organization, are taking no sides. If invited, she says she would gladly accept an invitation to the Republic National Convention.