Ingrid Mattson is a professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary. In 1995, she was an adviser to the Afghan delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, Professor Mattson is a contributor to The Muslim World Journal. She joined the CNN.com chat room from Connecticut.
CNN: Dr. Mattson, could you give us a basic explanation of Islam?
MATTSON: Islam is a global religion practiced by approximately 1.2 billion people in the world. Religious scholars consider it one of the Abrahamic religions meaning that, like Judaism and Christianity, it traces its primary beliefs back to the message of monotheism promoted by the prophet Abraham.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How do you react to criticism that westerners do not understand Islam?
MATTSON: I don't think that's true of all Westerners, any more than it's true that all Muslims have a misunderstanding of western culture or American life. Unfortunately, there are misunderstandings that often are the result of the limited images of each culture that are shown or promoted in the general media.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How had bin Laden duped so many Islamic people into believing his war of terrorism is in the name of Allah? The Koran, or at least my interpretation, disallows any killing of innocents, yet many Muslims feel the acts of September 11 were warranted.
MATTSON: I think that not many Muslims, only a small number of Muslims throughout the world would support Osama bin Laden's tactics. A larger number share the grievances that he has voiced, but they would share those grievances if they were voiced by any person. One of the reasons why some poor and marginalized people in the Muslim world have turned to Osama bin Laden as a spokesperson for their grievances, is because they feel that no one else, including their own leaders, has spoken for them.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can you give us a view of how many people convert to Islam from other religions, as opposed to Christianity?
MATTSON: I really wouldn't be in a position to give precise figures. What I do know is that according to many scholars, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does Islam ever promote violence and, if so, under what circumstances? If not, why do so many Muslims take up arms?
MATTSON: Islam allows force to be used by legitimate authorities, to protect people, and to protect Muslim states, just as all nation states in the world permit themselves to use force to protect their security and interests. Again, the problem of individual Muslims taking up arms, becoming vigilantes, in a way, is related to their frustration with the lack of leadership on the part of their own government.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What legal rights do women have in Islam? The right to vote, work, own businesses?
MATTSON: Muslim women have the same legal rights as Muslim men. The Prophet Mohammed's wife was a businesswoman. In fact, he met her working for her as her agent. The legal rights of women were enshrined in Islamic law. However, cultural practices in many societies have prevented those rights from being enforced.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What can you tell us about the Wahhabi sect of Islam? Is it true that this is an extremely right wing sect founded and funded by the Saudi royal family, and led by Osama bin Ladin? What is the purpose of the Wahhabi?
MATTSON: No it's not true to characterized 'Wahhabism' that way. This is not a sect. It is the name of a reform movement that began 200 years ago to rid Islamic societies of cultural practices and rigid interpretation that had acquired over the centuries. It really was analogous to the European protestant reformation. Because the Wahhabi scholars became intergreated into the Saudi state, there has been some difficulty keeping that particular interpretation of religion from being enforced too broadly on the population as a whole. However, the Saudi scholars who are Wahhabi have denounced terrorism and denounced in particular the acts of September 11. Those statements are available publicly.
This quesiton has arisen because last week there were a number of newspaper reports that were dealing with this. They raised the issue of the role of Saudi Arabia and the ideaology there. Frankly, I think in a way it was a reaction to the attempts of many people to look for the roots of terrorism in misguided foreign policy. It's not helpful, I believe, to create another broad category that that becomes the scape goat for terrorism.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there a general feeling among the Muslims that the western world does not take them seriously?
MATTSON: I think that sometimes Muslims feel that their lives, their security, and their right to self-determination are not given very much weight by Western governments. Although, most Muslims would express appreciation for the ability of the average American to react empathetically to their causes.
CNN: Tell us about traditional Islamic dress. Why is it so varied, and so controversial to people of other cultures?
MATTSON: Traditional Islamic dress is modest dress, for men and women. It is considered appropriate public dress, so in the home, Muslims dress much more casually. The controversy arises when governments attempt to enforce a particular religious interpretation of proper Islamic dress on the population at large.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: At what point in history, if known, did the Islamic nation turn from a philosophical and educated state comparable to the Greeks to the now third world state it is in?
MATTSON: Well, the decline began with the colonization of the Muslim world by European powers. One of the first things the colonialists did was to dismantle the institutions of what we could call civil society. The Muslim world has until now not recovered from that dismemberment of its society.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Jesus said: I am the way, the truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me. What does Islam think of Christ?
MATTSON: It's a principle of faith for Muslims to believe that Jesus was sent by God as a righteous prophet. The Koran states that Jesus was born miraculously of the Virgin Mary, but the Koran states that none of the prophets were divine, including Jesus.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Does the Taliban place blame upon women for the weakness of men in their society? Is that why they place such restriction upon them?
MATTSON: The Taliban place restrictions on everyone in their society, men and women. They've extended their authority over individuals far beyond traditional government in Afghanistan. In their minds, they are protecting women from other men by placing these restrictions on them.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What possible justification can there be for the wholesale massacre of civilians in Islam?
MATTSON: There is no justification. It is prohibited in Islamic law. It is a great sin in Islamic theology. This has been stated before and after September 11 by leading Muslim scholars throughout the world. Osama bin Laden and his group are not considered scholars or legitimate interpreters of religion by the vast majority of Muslims in the world.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Osama bin Laden made a reference that Muslims have been living in humiliation for 80 years. Did he refer to the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 that dismantled caliphates and sultanates?
MATTSON: Yes, he is referring to that, to the overthrowing of the caliphate, which was a plan of European powers for many years. This deprived the Muslim world of a stable and centralized authority, and much of the chaos that we're living in today is the result of that.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: What do you consider to be the best reference work on Islam -- apart from the Koran that is?
MATTSON: If someone wants to have access to a mainstream Muslim perspective, there's a really nice book called "Islam, the Natural Way," and the author is Abdulwahid Hamid. Another book is called "God is One," by Marston Speight.
CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?
MATTSON: I'd like to thank everyone for taking time to try to learn about Islam and about Muslims. The only way for all of us to find a way out of this crisis we're in is by understanding the world that we live in. Thank you.
CNN: Thank you!
Dr. Ingrid Mattson joined the chat room via telephone from Connecticut and CNN.com provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, October 18, 2001 at 11:30 a.m. EDT.