The Islamic militant suddenly turned toward the American woman, pointing his assault rifle at her.
Cynthia Mahmood froze, seeing the rage etched in the man’s face as he shouted at her, “We love Saddam Hussein. USA, no!”
Mahmood was the only woman traveling with the Islamic militant group in 1998 as it crossed through Pakistan on foot and headed to its isolated military camp in the mountains.
Shocked, Mahmood knew she was just one false move or one wrong word from being shot and left for dead. She had been confronted by angry people before. During an earlier journey in India, a group of guerrilla fighters beat her, fracturing her leg.
So even though she had been invited to travel with the Islamic group, she tried to remain calm in the face of the militant’s rage toward the United States.
She drew from the fearlessness that had led her to this part of the world to study, face-to-face, the sources of violence, terrorism and war.
With the gun still aimed at her, she spoke softly and acted vulnerable as she acknowledged the militant’s words. The anger soon drained from his face, and he lowered the gun.
A short while later, the two sat to have tea and talk.
** “If you approach the toughest of the toughest, you have to do it with a gentleness that would make them open to you,” says the University of Notre Dame anthropology professor. “You have to be fearless, too. Once you get the fear out of the way, you can have a human-to-human conversation. I try to get in their heads to understand where they’re coming from.”
At 46, Mahmood is an expert on life and terrorism in the Islamic world. Government agencies in Britain, Canada and the United States have consulted her on immigration, security and defense issues, drawing on her knowledge as one of the few Westerners who have done extensive research and had face-to-face interviews with fundamentalist militants.
She’s willing to risk her life because she hopes her efforts will increase the possibility of peace. She knows that potential grows when people understand others’ cultures. She knows the worlds of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan — the focus of the United States’ foreign policy now.
Mahmood also knows that part of the world from a personal perspective. In India, on a tour of that country’s holy sites, she met Khalid Mahmood, whom she married. In Pakistan, his homeland, they adopted a baby girl who had been abandoned outside a hospital.
Yet what the professor sees now scares her.
“What hasn’t happened yet that I really fear and expect is another devastating attack on the United States. Then we will respond in an equally devastating manner, and it can spark a cycle that can go out of control.”
It all seems a universe removed from her childhood in a Mennonite family in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Yet the daughter of Elwood and Helen Keppley credits her upbringing for shaping her interest in peace studies.
“I grew up in a pacifist environment,” Mahmood says as she sits in her office at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. “That’s part of my fascination with some of the most violent people in the world. I grew up in a family where people didn’t even raise their voices.”
Still, the message she received from her parents was strong and clear. They’d met on a picket line, protesting for textile workers. Her father often went to jail for his union-organizing efforts. And even though he died when she was 6, he’d already taught her the importance of having a social conscience.
“You should do what you do because you think it’s right, not just for money, not just for happiness, not just for your family,” Mahmood says, reciting her parents’ philosophy. “There was a model of fearlessness, too, to do the right thing. After my father died, we were poor. Still, my mom decided we should get an education to change the world for the better.”
Life would be safer for Mahmood if she pursued that goal solely from the peaceful setting of Notre Dame. But the framed picture just outside her office reveals that such an approach isn’t suited to her.
Showing a bullring in Spain, it bears these words: “It’s not the same to talk of bulls as to be in the bull ring.”
Her college education led her to Southeast Asia, where she studied how religious movements there often are forms of political resistance. She then traveled to India to meet and research Sikh militants as they fought for an independent state, which resulted in her book, Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues With Sikh Militants. The book showed the Sikhs’ tradition of martyrdom — similar to what Muslim fundamentalists have done in terrorist attacks.
“Cynthia puts herself and her work right in the center of some of the most profoundly deep and difficult questions of our time,” says Carolyn Nordstrom, a fellow professor in Notre Dame’s anthropology department. “She makes sure we do not leave out the victims who are often overlooked — what happens to women, children, the disenfranchised.”
Mahmood gets close to people because she approaches them with humility and shows respect for their traditions. In Pakistan, she wore the head-to-toe covering of a Muslim woman when she interviewed members of the Daughters of the Nation, a women’s group that supports fundamentalist militants.
“I consider myself a feminist, and I know there are a lot of awful things about the situations of women in the Muslim world,” she says. “But we should not be glib about making judgments unless we’ve checked it out from the perspective of the women themselves.”
When she visited the group in Pakistan, she met its leader — a female surgeon who had been trained in England, a doctor who was in charge of a hospital that treated terrorists who had been injured in military action against the Indian government.
“You must feel free”
“I stayed at a guest house,” Mahmood recalls. "When we were inside there, we took off all our coverings, and we talked about our lives, about men, about babies and careers. They also had frank talks about their sex lives.
“Then they asked me questions about America. One of the young girls asked me how I felt about wearing their clothes. I told her they were comfortable. She said, ‘You must feel free.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘You are subject to the stares of strange men (in America).’ Others mentioned how American women have to worry about makeup and hair. They were not expressing envy.”
She also experienced the emotion of visiting Ground Zero in New York City, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed after the terrorist attacks.
Standing there with others, Mahmood noticed the reaction of a man next to her. He clenched his fists, and his body tensed with rage as he said, “Let’s get them back!”
The devastation overwhelmed Mahmood, too. She grieved for the people who had been killed. She also had a different reaction than the man standing next to her.
“I wanted it to end there,” she says. “No more bombings, no more fire, no more retaliation, no more violence.”
She voiced those sentiments later during a talk she gave in New York City. When she finished, a man stood up in the audience, outraged: “How can you say this?! You didn’t lose anyone there, like we did. We’re so angry, and you’re asking us not to strike back?!”
Mahmood acknowledged the man’s grief. She also answered “yes” to his question.
“The (U.S.) administration has tried to be appropriately cautious, and it’s been admirably restrained by some standards,” she says. “But when you declare an ongoing war on terrorism, it’s like calling for a permanently militarized stance. The idea of a superpower committed to militarism without a clearly defined enemy is frightening.”
So are the problems the terrorists present. She has been in their camps. She has seen the varied nationalities of the people there. She knows the intelligence, passion and the popular support they have.
A global enemy
“We could wipe Afghanistan to the ground, and that will not conquer al-Qaida,” she says. “There are thousands in other countries and countless numbers in our own country. This is a trans- national, global network. We continue to underestimate the enemy.”
The United States also continues to underestimate the potential for dialogue, she says.
Mahmood believes that the United States must be open to discussions regarding problem areas that trouble the Muslim world, including the conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians, and between India and Pakistan. The United States must have a uniform approach to countries that violate human rights, rather than basing its response on whether those countries are our allies or enemies.
She also believes that the United States would succeed in its efforts more by letting the United Nations and the International Court of Justice take the lead roles against terrorists.
“The huge majority of the Muslim world has condemned what happened September 11,” she says. “There have been movements to marginalize Muslim radicals. But there’s also a continuing resentment of the United States’ vision of itself as the arbiter of everything that goes on in the world.”
Mahmood walks more than a tightrope in her efforts to promote a peaceful solution. She walks through a minefield. She travels across the world to understand people who sometimes beat and threaten her. As she speaks of peace in her own country, she sometimes is met with anger.
“There are some people who are doubting and very suspicious about the need to explore the world of terrorists,” says Jim McKenna, chairman of Notre Dame’s anthropology department. “Cynthia makes very clear the difference between understanding and condoning what they do. Her whole career is dedicated to promoting understanding and helping to end acts of political violence.”
Daughter Naintara, now 13, sometimes worries for her mother.
“It’s scary because you don’t know what’s going to happen for my mom when she’s an American dealing with terrorists who don’t like America,” says Naintara, whose name means “Star of My Eye.”
“But she’s doing the right thing by getting direct evidence and not judging people by what happens or what people hear in the news.”
The right thing. That phrase surfaces in Cynthia Mahmood’s memories of her father. It’s there in Mahmood’s own words. It’s there in Naintara’s words — and her actions, including the time someone taunted the Pakistani-born teen-ager in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“I’ve learned from my mom to stand up for yourself and not judge anybody if you haven’t been in their shoes,” Naintara says. “I’ve learned to stay calm. Even if someone hurts you, you treat them with peace, not violence.”
The words would make her mother smile. Mahmood took her daughter to Cyprus to show her the effects of war. The two of them even walked through an area marked with land mines there.
“She has a realistic sense of violence now — she has seen the devastation of war,” Mahmood says. "She’s very brave, and she does very well, but I’ve held back from a lot of things, from thoughts of her. Now that she’s getting older, I’m getting more daring. I think it’s important that a child have a role model of integrity who lives up to his principles. I had a dad who did that.
“People tell me I shouldn’t take these risks. I’m not normally a risk-taker. I don’t like to drive in Chicago. I don’t like to walk on the edge of curbs just for fun. I don’t go bungee-jumping. One of my hobbies is needlepoint.
“I do what I do from a moral compulsion.”
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Mahmood was scheduled to travel to Afghanistan to interview Taliban leaders in December. Now, she’s hoping to head to Kashmir, where India and Pakistan have been fighting each other.
“I’m trying to make the world a better place by understanding war and violence more,” Mahmood says. “It’s not scary. What’s scary is when you shrink back from doing the right thing.”