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A moderate voice to quell extreme perceptions

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(CNN) -- As the president of the Islamic Society of North America, Ingrid Mattson has set out to correct the misconceptions and prejudices that she says shroud the Muslim community.

And as a white woman born in Canada, and one raised Catholic -- a seeming walking contradiction of the religion's stereotypes -- Mattson may be best poised to debunk the myths.

"There are so many challenges right now for being a Muslim," Mattson, the society's first woman president, told CNN in a recent interview.

"The perception of who we are and what we believe is heavily influenced by international events, and it's difficult to present ourselves independently," she said, citing the war in Iraq and other conflicts in predominantly Muslim countries.

As a result of violent and anti-American news stories coming from Iraq, Pakistan and other countries, she said, Muslims in the United States "face this suspicion and this fear that somehow we represent a foreign threat."

"The war in Iraq, in particular, has such a negative effect on the way Americans perceive Islam," she said. "The chaos there has led many Americans to have this association between Islam and violence."

And it is an association and an image that she said has no bearing on the religion and the community she knows.

"When I became a Muslim I was embraced wholeheartedly," she said. She converted at age 23, after not practicing Catholicism for about eight years. "Islam for me provided a way back to God," she said.

"When I read the Quran, it really opened up to me a whole new world of meaning ... I could connect my experiences, my place in the world, with a greater power and greater authority."

Part of her responsibility as ISNA president, she said, is to convey the positive aspects of the community and the faith -- what she calls the "good news" to non-Muslims.

"We are the best asset for America in understanding what is going on in the Muslim world, and so we need to be ... welcomed as equal partners in this struggle for a peaceful and civil world."

And as Muslims, she said, "we need to raise our heads up; to not be afraid that people are looking at us with suspicion, and to not feel that we have to answer to everything that every Muslim is doing in the world."

Mattson is also a professor of Islamic Studies and Director of Islamic Chaplaincy at the Macdonald Center for Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children, according to the ISNA Web site.

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Ingrid Mattson is the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America.

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