Ingrid Mattson made history four years ago by being elected the first female president of the Plainfield-based Islamic Society of North America.
But her groundbreaking didn't stop there.
Mattson and other Islamic Society leaders forged new partnerships with major national Jewish and Christian organizations. And her prominence in interfaith circles landed her a role with other faith leaders in the inaugural festivities of President Barack Obama.
Yet the achievements of Mattson's tenure as the organization's president, which comes to an end this weekend, have been tempered somewhat by the realities of life right now for American Muslims -- many of whom feel less secure than at any time since shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
During the recently completed Muslim holy month of Ramadan, loud objections were raised to a plan to build an Islamic center in New York City because it was within a few blocks of Ground Zero. A Florida pastor threatened to burn Islam's holy book. And Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and a potential presidential candidate, made an analogy between the New York mosque planners and Nazis who would plant their insignia near a Holocaust museum.
"There were a few days during that month," Mattson said, "where I felt that I am coming to the end of nine years of constant service (including five as the society's vice president) and, 'This is where we are now?' "
Mattson has said her tenure as president has been, in many ways, one crisis after another -- from responding to a new wave of anti-Muslim commentary to responding to attacks by Muslim extremists, such as her denunciation of the murder of Christian civilian aid workers by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan as against the "foundation of Islam."
"I think the biggest challenge," she said, "was not to simply be reactionary."
Mattson, 47, is leaving as president because of the society's two-term limit, but she will remain on its executive council. Her successor hasn't officially been named. The current vice president, All Dulles Area Muslim Society imam Mohamed Magid, was the only nominee on a presidential ballot that also had room for write-ins. His confirmation as the new president was expected today.
As a white, Canadian-born, Catholic convert to Islam, Mattson put a new face on the leadership of an organization previously led by immigrants from Africa and Asia.
Arsalan Iftikhar, media commentator and founder of TheMuslimGuy.com, further noted the importance of gender.
"Whenever you have a historical or political 'first' of this kind within a community," Iftikhar said, "it tends to chip away at some of the gender stereotypes and glass ceilings that occur within society and allows our little girls to keep dreaming that they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up."
Mattson said she was well-received at mosques and Islamic societies around the country, even at places that still have progress to make in expanding the role of women. But the ongoing struggle for acceptance of Muslims within the broader American society has been a bigger concern.
Mattson said there are some key factors making that difficult:
President Obama. Not the president himself, she said, but Obama's political adversaries who are determined to oppose him at every turn -- including his attempts to improve relations with the Muslim world and to note the contributions of Muslim Americans.
Obama mentioned Muslims in his inaugural address and made a major speech in Cairo promoting American-Muslim relations.
"Now," Mattson said, "opposition to Obama takes the form also of opposition to everything he says about Islam and Muslims."
Noise from the blogosphere and elsewhere. Mattson said the many anti-Muslim blogs, books and authors have been using the actions of Muslim extremists to promote their political, religious and ideological agendas. Years of such noise are having an effect, she said, "that is just cumulative."
Nine years of war in Muslim countries. The enemies in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the ones killing American troops and committing acts of terrorism -- have been Muslims. The drumbeat of the news and commentary has been a daily reminder of those facts. What is lost in all that, Mattson said, is that "many Americans have forgotten that the ally was Muslim."
What former Secretary of State Colin Powell described in a GQ interview as the "terror industrial complex." As Powell put it, billions of dollars are being spent on homeland security, and an array of companies have arisen whose success depends on keeping the threats of terrorism pumped up.
"There's a lot of money in it. There are a lot of people making careers out of it. It is now institutionalized," Mattson said. "They have to really keep fear alive to keep selling their product."
Despite the difficulties, Mattson said she is optimistic about the future of Muslims in America because of the fundamental quality of generosity and fairness in ordinary Americans.
"If they have access to the right information," she said, "they are going to be fair."