Face to face with jihad; In studying Islamic fervor, Notre Dame professor redefines `hands-on-research'

Author: Ron Grossman

SOUTH BEND, Ind.— In the days since Sept. 11, newspapers have printed myriad op-ed essays explaining Islamic fundamentalism. Television screens have been filled with talking heads identified as terrorism experts.p. Yet when Cynthia Mahmood encounters them, she can only wonder if those instant analysts ever have been face to face with a Muslim guerrilla.p. She has.p. “When they came to pick me up at 5 in the morning, I’d been shaking the whole night through and had to force myself to get into the car,” said Mahmood, 46. “But by the time we’d reached their base camp in the mountains, I was strangely calm.”p. Now, though, she is scared.p. Like other Americans, Mahmood, a social anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, is frightened by lingering images of the terrible carnage at the World Trade Center and Pentagon. But she is additionally scared because what she hears the public being told about our terrorism problem is so vastly different from what she saw in that camp in Pakistan, filled with mujahedeen fighters who serve alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan or take part in the Muslim liberation movement in Kashmir.p. Mahmood is an academic oddball. Most professors have a comfort zone limited to libraries and seminar rooms. She prefers gathering data up close: She donned a chador, the head-to-toe covering of a pious Muslim woman, to interview the Daughters of the Nation, a kind of woman’s auxiliary of the fundamentalist movement, which takes as its special mission throwing acid at unveiled females.p. For years, her scholarly specialty— the intersection of religious fervor and armed violence — was something of an academic backwater. Even now, it is a bit of an embarrassment in the ivory tower, where traditionally gentle mores have been reinforced with a liberal dose of political correctness.p. Mahmood is right out of the tradition of such intrepid women adventurers as Freya Stark, a famed early 20th Century British traveler who similarly wore native garb to visit an exotic East that was off-limits to Westerners.p. Yet Mahmood, who joined Notre Dame’s faculty this year, confesses to having been blind to the fervors of her new workplace. “I don’t think I realized,” she said, “how rabid a football school this is.”p. She vigorously dissents from an intellectual consensus jointly reached by Bush administration spokesmen and scholars of Islam. The consensus-builders argue that our present problems, while serious, are not insurmountable. In their view, Osama bin Laden’s followers are few, and his brand of fire-and-brimstone preaching is out of the historical mainstream of Islam. They cite passages in the Koran that mark it as a religion of peace and tolerance.p. For example, Wadad Kadi, a University of Chicago professor of Near Eastern studies, points to earlier episodes of militant fundamentalism with happy endings. In the first two centuries of the faith — the 7th and 8th Centuries — she notes, the Kharijites, a secessionist movement, drew a bead on other Muslims who didn’t subscribe to their militant brand of the faith.p. “But they wound up assimilationists,” Kadi said. “Today, there are still small communities of Kharijites living peacefully side-by-side with other Muslims in places like Oman.”p. To Mahmood, though, if you want to know about contemporary Islam, the last person to talk to is a historian. Nor does a scholarly reading of the Koran provide much insight into the minds of bin Laden’s admirers, she argues, adding that it would be foolhardy to underestimate their numbers.p. “In Pakistan alone, 12,000 boys were named Osama last year,” Mahmood said. “If you want to understand the Muslim world, you can’t do it by reading the Koran or consulting Islamic scholars. You have to listen to what is being preached in the little mosques on the ordinary streets.”p. Mahmood knows the Pakistani scene personally and professionally. She met her husband, Khalid, a lawyer by trade, while doing research there. It was there also that they adopted their daughter, Naintara, now 12, who had been abandoned on the street as an infant.p. Pennsylvania-born p. Mahmood’s own roots (her maiden name is Keppley) are in Pennsylvania, where her parents were union organizers and socialist activists.p. “They met on a picket line,” Mahmood said. “So it was natural for me to become interested in issues of social justice and the question of peace.”p. She is currently a fellow of the university’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. But she is convinced that if you want to work for peace, you have to talk to those who make war.p. Nor can you allow personal tastes to get in the way of doing the job. Mahmood says she has taken static from liberated women friends who object to her wearing the garb required of Muslim women.p. “I think it is more effective to put on a hajab, a headscarf,” she said, “before asking a terrorist: `Do you have any regrets about blowing up that police station?’”p. Her first book, “Fighting for Faith and Nation,” was a study of Sikh separatists mounting an armed resistance movement in India. For the last decade, she has been studying similar movements in the Islamic world. She has courted the Taliban leaders, seeking permission to extend her researches to territorial Afghanistan, and, until Sept. 11, was scheduled to go there later this year. She had established her bona fides with the Taliban through her encounters with its fighters in the militant training camps in Pakistan.p. Service in Pakistan A few years back, she furthered her research by serving as an impromptu nurse’s aid in a field hospital in Pakistan. The hospital was treating evacuated Muslim soldiers who had been fighting religious wars across the mountain-top borders in the Himalayas.p. “Going from bed to bed, I met young men and boys, some of whom had come from as far away as Somalia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and the Sudan,” Mahmood said. “They had been wounded in Kashmir or Afghanistan. They might not know the details of the struggles they had been fighting for. But they knew that Muslims were suffering. That thought alone had recruited them.”p. From that experience, she concludes that America is not just up against bin Laden’s group, but faces a much wider “trans-national jihad.” Mahmood thinks there is a widespread feeling in the Islamic world that Muslims have an obligation to take up weapons and come to the aid of other Muslims, wherever they are oppressed.p. Fred Dooner, a professor in the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, agrees with that analysis, at least in part.p. “Islamic tradition stresses justice and resisting tyranny,” he said, “which is a ready-made template for a morality play.”p. Mahmood thinks that another experience also has provided inspiration for that morality play.p. “Muslims have strong memories that there was a time when they were on top,” Mahmood said. “In the Middle Ages, the West was weak and the Islamic countries were strong.”p. Bernard Lewis, a distinguished historian of the Arab world, thinks that echoes of that history are still felt. His book, “The Assassins,” traced the rise and fall of a 12th Century movement that combined a concern for religious purity with armed struggle. The Assassins, the Princeton professor noted, never reached their goal of achieving control of the Muslim world.p. Imitators carry on p. “Yet the undercurrent of messianic hope and revolutionary violence which had impelled them flowed on, and their ideals and methods found many imitators,” Lewis wrote. “For these, the great changes of our time have provided new causes for anger, new dreams of fulfillment, and new tools of attack.”p. Mahmood adds that those new tools aren’t limited to the kind of carefully co-ordinated kamikaze attacks of Sept. 11. The arsenal of Islamic militancy also includes some factors that, up to now, we thought worked to our advantage.p. For example, in the West, she notes, our identities are linked to the places we inhabit: We are Americans, or British, or French. In the Islamic world, though, national identities are weaker — and religious commitments proportionally stronger.p. So she thinks we’re behind the eight ball of trying to fight the war on terrorism proclaimed by President Bush using a strategy based on an old model — wars that pit one state against another. Meanwhile, the terrorists have a whole wide world of Islam from which to recruit. “That thought leaves me filled with fear and depression,” Mahmood said. “I just cannot see too many happy endings.”

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