Cynthia Mahmood

An associate professor of anthropology and senior fellow of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame

Profile by Sofia Javed
March, 2007

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Cynthia Keppley Mahmood has never felt anger. That's why she has been able to devote her life to studying and working with violent people.

Mahmood, 51, grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania among the Mennonite church, which doesn't believe in using force, even for self-defense. Although she watched the news of the Vietnam War on television, there was very little anger exhibited in her immediate environment. "I never even heard people raise their voices until I was in college," she said. "I never saw anybody feeling angry either. Even now, anger is very foreign to me."

Even when, after the first Gulf War, a Pakistani militant shoved a rifle in her chest and yelled, "USA no!" Mahmood reacted with patience and calm. She encouraged the man to engage in conversation, and they sat cross-legged on the path and discussed his concerns over tea.

"The reason I can be around those people is that I'm very calm and peaceful," Mahmood explained. "I don't get angry. Even when I've had them point guns at me, I don't respond by getting defensive."

From this background, Mahmood said it was intellectual fascination that led her to study people who instead espouse a philosophy of violence. To Mahmood, an associate professor of anthropology and senior fellow of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, the disciplines of anthropology and peace work are closely related. She began as an anthropologist, studying the human quest for meaning But her repeated encounters with human suffering led her to consider a deeper study of violence.

"Some people find medicine or some other thing as their particular skill," Mahmood explained. "But I found that my particular skill is in peace and war, or violence and nonviolence, and trying to find a way to mitigate violence."

Mahmood said it was chance that guided her research interests to religious conflict in South Asia in the early 1990s, specifically the growing Sikh unrest in the Indian Punjab. From 1978 to 1993, the Indian government rejected an appeal for autonomy from the Sikh-majority state and fed a separatist movement for a sovereign Sikh homeland called Khalistan. Popular support among Sikhs for the Khalistan movement grew significantly following state repression in the mid-1980s.

Ensuing political violence in Punjab killed tens of thousands and victimized many more until the movement quieted down in the early 1990s. A counterinsurgency followed, and according to Mahmood, a total of nearly 100,000 Sikhs have died.

In 1992, Mahmood began meeting Sikh leaders in the US, the UK and Canada, and for four years, she recorded their stories of human rights abuses in Punjab. She developed trust with the community and eventually began speaking with fighters in the Khalistan commando force about the violence in the Sikh militant struggle and the philosophy of resistance inherent in the faith.

The project resulted in the 1996 ethnography, Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants. The book, combined with more than a decade of participant observation and research among the international Sikh community, afforded Mahmood a reputation as an expert on the Khalistan movement. She wrote numerous articles on human rights in Punjab, Sikh religious issues, guerilla warfare and terrorism, as well as co-authored in 1999, The Guru's Gift about gender equality in the Sikh community. She also began consulting with the US, Canadian and British governments on the legitimacy of security threats posed by various Sikh groups. Mahmood also became widely known as a speaker to both academic and Sikh audiences. In 2000, she published a collection of her articles and speeches on Sikh topics called A Sea of Orange.

"The Sikhs think I'm like their savior now. I go all over and speak to the Sikhs."

Mahmood describes herself as "an engaged anthropologist." That is, an anthropologist who is both a scholar and an activist. And her ethnographic work contributes to the broader theory of conflict and violence. Together with four other prominent anthropologists — Antonius Robben of the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands; Carolyn Nordstrom, of the University of Notre Dame; Jeffrey Sluka of Massey University, New Zealand; and Kevin Avruch of George Mason University — Mahmood pioneered a sub-field now known widely as the anthropology of violence.[1] In 1995, she initiated a book series called The Ethnography of Political Violence and has directed it since.

Through her continued work with the Sikhs, as well as her work in other areas including Kashmir and Cyprus, Mahmood maintains an emphasis on the importance of anthropology in peace work. She believes anthropology can make significant contributions to effective peacebuilding.

First, anthropology treats violence not as something that will end with the signing of a treaty, but as a continuum that is intrinsic to normal, everyday human life. Anthropology thus provides, according to Mahmood, "a more realistic sense of the varying levels of violence and what it means to curb it rather than just to eradicate it and create some sort of utopian state where there is no violence."

She also emphasizes that there is no universal formula for transforming conflict to peace. Peacebuilders should have extensive knowledge about the local cultural, religious, political and economic settings in which they work. For this, anthropological methods can be quite useful.

"The student of peace studies should learn the ethnographer's trick of listening," Mahmood explained, emphasizing the need to work beyond quantitative research and formal interviewing. "Listening with a totally open mind, bracketing or parenthesizing all your own values and your own projections about what works and what doesn't, what's good and what's bad, and just listening as a participant observer to what the people there think of value and think is important before you even begin to take a single step."

Anthropological tricks can be useful to the political aspects of peacebuilding as well, as Mahmood explained in a 2002 article in Anthropology Today:

I think that anthropologists are well suited, both by training and temperament, to be able to begin a dialogue with those who appear to have given up on dialogue. The proportions of crisis right now are such that it is important to try. Let us use our professional training to explore whether dialogue may be possible along avenues political leaders have closed off in favour of military options. Let us follow Zulaika and Douglass in their insightful call for serious anthropological exploration of the 'tabooed' topic of terrorism (1996). This means not only those movements that may more legitimately be defined as resistance movements or national liberation struggles, but also those we may be unable to sympathize with on any level but are still demanding of understanding if we are to avoid further war and bloodshed.[2]

Mahmood's own life work exemplifies the advantage of anthropological methods in peace activism. She points to two main goals for her work with the Sikhs. The first is for the world to know that even a democratic state can slip very easily toward human rights abuses. "We in the U.S. can take a lesson from that because it can happen here," Mahmood said. "India did it under the guise of national security, and we're not immune from it either."

The second goal is to continue to work with the Sikhs and encourage them toward non-violent ways of asserting their rights within India. This part of her work relies heavily on anthropology's emphasis on long-term relationships and life-long commitments.

"I've built a lifetime of trust with [the Sikhs]," Mahmood explained. "I speak at their temples, and I'm part of their groups, and I'm virtually part of their community. They don't know how to approach the UN or how to approach an external body or how to have a workshop together with Hindus. And I'm one of the few people that they might even listen to about how to do these things because I've spent a lifetime, risked my life, risked my career, spent what treasure I had, to serve their community."

Mahmood has, indeed, taken many risks for her work, and neither her beliefs and ambitions nor her writings have been free from criticism. Fighting for Faith and Nation was initially very controversial. A 1997 review published in American Anthropologist said the book eschews knowledge of the details in the subjects' lives and too easily reaffirms their stories: "...[S]he is surprisingly untroubled by her own complicity in the political agendas of her interlocutors."[3] The review also suggests that the book presents an unbalanced account of the Khalistan movement, thereby sacrificing the context and content of the violence: "Mahmood never gets us beyond the romance of violent resistance and her heroic championing of subordinated voices."[4]

The nature of her research also raised concerns. Colleagues accused Mahmood of hobnobbing with terrorists. Her superiors at the University of Maine, where she was then teaching, feared their campus would be bombed. And Mahmood is still often criticized for encouraging dialogue with terrorists and extremists and suggesting that their goals are no different than the motivations of those who join the US military.[5]

None of this discourages Mahmood. When she reflects on the risks she has taken for her work, she recalls the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, who found a belief among a variety of cultures that complete sacrifice to a cause will only open up opportunities and smooth the path to success.

This has been true for Mahmood. Despite the initial reactions, Fighting for Faith and Nation led to Mahmood's tenure at the University of Maine. And now, she said, it is considered a pioneering book in the field of anthropology of violence and is used in classrooms all over the world.

Risk taking and devotion to the cause are what Mahmood emphasizes to her students and other aspiring peace workers. For her personally, both inclinations result from her work with the Sikhs. She explained that feel they walk in the grace of God and therefore don't fear death or other consequences.

"I've learned from them that sense of grace, of walking fearlessly," she said. "Because if you've chosen a path, and you're walking purposefully on it, you're doing something meaningful for humanity."

She also encourages students to think critically about the risks that are commonly accepted in contemporary American society and evaluate their motivations for making peace in the world.

"We find it perfectly normal that people sign up to be soldiers in the Iraq war, and they're going to risk their lives and maybe kill and die for it," she explained, adding that,in contrast, risks taken for peace are often considered dangerous and unnecessary.

"We have to be as willing to be martyrs for peace as martyrs for war," Mahmood said. "I don't mean you should go and get killed for peace studies, but what I mean is to be so sure of what you're doing your work for that you don't pay attention to questions of risk. You're so much living for your work that you simply don't have to be fearful of the consequences. Better do it with your whole heart and your whole mind."

[1] Cynthia Mahmood, personal Web page. <>

[2] Cynthia Mahmood, 2002. "Anthropological Compulsions in a World Crisis." Anthropology Today, Vol. 18, no. 3. <>

[3] Verne A. Dusenbery, 1997. "Review: Political Violence and the Politics of Ethnography." American Anthropologist, Vol. 99, No. 4, pp. 831-833.

[4] Verne A. Dusenbery, 1997. "Review: Political Violence and the Politics of Ethnography." American Anthropologist, Vol. 99, No. 4, pp. 831-833.

[5] "Peace Studies Departments and Programs." <>; Thomas Ryan, "The Fighting Islamists of Notre Dame,", February 8, 2005. <>