Cynthia Keppley Mahmood was born in Reading, Pennsylvania to a family of mixed German and Hungarian ancestry. Her mother and father were active in labor and union causes, and she grew up in an environment alive to social conscience. Travel to the Netherlands as a high school exchange student brought an international dimension to Dr. Mahmood’s early education, otherwise restricted by family circumstance to a narrower area. Neither her mother nor her father had finished secondary school, or traveled beyond the U.S. northeast.
Cynthia Mahmood learned Dutch, French and German while studying in Holland, and acquired a taste for independent study. She chose an experimental college for her bachelor’s degree, New College in Sarasota, Florida – which she attended as a fully-funded National Merit Scholar. This intense, highly intellectual experience in which each student was viewed as responsible for his or her own education and learning regarded as its own reward, shaped Dr. Mahmood’s lifelong perspective on pedagogy.
Cynthia’s bachelor’s research at New College consisted of an ethnographic field study in the village of Oostermeer (Eastermar) in the province of Friesland, the Netherlands. She learned the Frisian language in order to complete this case study of linguistic nationalism, which was later published by Waveland Press under the title Frisian and Free: Study of an Ethnic Minority of the Netherlands. She received the B.A. in Anthropology and Psychology in 1977.
Awarded a full graduate fellowship, Cynthia enrolled in Cornell University’s anthropology program in 1977-78. She took a hiatus after a year, however, recognizing that she had as yet no fully developed “area” interest in anthropology. Her geographic focus became clearer during a teaching stint in Sapporo, Japan (1979-80), during which Dr. Mahmood developed a fascination with Zen Buddhism and other aspects of Asian thought. She returned to graduate school at Tulane University after traveling throughout east and southeast Asia, with a firmer idea of an “area” focus on religion in Asia.
Mahmood’s dissertation research in 1983-84 in India, the homeland of Buddhism, resulted in her 1986 doctorate, “Rebellion and Response in Ancient India: Political Dynamics of the Hindu-Buddhist Tradition.” She became interested in the entanglements among collective identities, religious beliefs, and mobilized ethnicity, which she saw as a forming a broad-based pattern that defined South Asian civilization through the ages. In 1983-84, when she was studying ancient Buddhism, upheaval amongst India’s Sikhs was in the news daily. This was a feature of the field environment that Cynthia would later make her signature area of expertise.
After marrying Khalid Mahmood, whom she had met during her field research in India, Cynthia took a job teaching anthropology at a small liberal arts college in Pella, Iowa – Central College. As it turned out, Pella, Iowa was a town of Dutch and Frisian ancestry, and Cynthia not only found herself setting up an anthropology program in what had previous been a combined soc-anth department, but also establishing a summer ethnographic field school back in Friesland, the Netherlands. She directed this field school with colleague Phil Webber, a linguist, and they alternated summers focusing on language and culture as they took small groups of students to Oostermeer (Eastermar).
The intensive teaching loads of small liberal arts colleges often drive research-oriented scholars to larger settings. With regret, in 1991 Cynthia Mahmood made a move to the University of Maine in Orono. Here, she was able to more fully develop her research interest in religious conflict and South Asia. The Sikh unrest in Punjab had now reached the level of civil war, and Kashmir to the north was also seething at this point. Hindus and Muslims were agitating over the holy site of Ayodhya. Tribals were quarreling in the northeast. There was a lot of attention on India, and in 1992 Dr. Mahmood made a second trip there, this time focusing on adivasis (indigenous people), human rights, and the Sikhs..
This was the start of the project that resulted in the ethnography, Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with Sikh Militants, which led to Dr. Mahmood’s tenure at the University of Maine in 1996. (She was elected to the University’s honor society as an outstanding faculty member shortly thereafter.) Although the expedition in 1992 focused first on the Sauria Paharia tribe of Bihar, the radically declining autonomy of these indigenous people in the face of Indian nationalism led Cynthia further into the area of center-periphery relations in India. She began talking with human rights activists in Punjab, and recognized that there was an untold story of oppression and resistance behind the sensationalist headlines that emphasized “terrorism” and “fanaticism.” Unfortunately, Dr. Mahmood was personally assaulted during this research trip, an event that convinced her of the necessity of scholarship centering on the real story behind majority-minority relations in India and the problems of “the world’s largest democracy.”
A decade of participant observation and intensive study in the international Sikh community has made Cynthia Mahmood an expert on the movement for an independent state in Punjab, the Khalistan movement. She became widely known as a speaker, writer, consultant, and expert witness on human rights in India, Sikh religious issues, terrorism and guerilla warfare, and related matters. In 2000, she published a book co-authored with a student, Stacy Brady, on gender equality in the Sikh community, The Guru’s Gift. In 2003 a collection of her articles and speeches on Sikh topics came out under the title A Sea of Orange. She has been frequently recognized for her contributions to Sikh Studies in the form of awards and citations. Like many anthropologists who are adopted by the “tribes” they study, Cynthia is welcomed and honored in the Sikh community – a position very few scholars find themselves in during these fraught times. Presenting her an award for service to the community at the 400th anniversary celebration of the Sikh Holy Book, a senior Sikh described Professor Mahmood as “the Edward Said of the Sikhs – our intellectual analyst, our literary voice, and our moral conscience.”
Retaining an interest in the broader theory of conflict and violence to which her own ethnographic work might contribute, Dr. Mahmood initiated a book series at the University of Pennsylvania Press. She invited four prominent anthropologists to serve on the advisory board of the series: Antonius Robben of the University of Utrecht, the Netherlands; Carolyn Nordstrom, then of the University of California, Berkeley (now at Notre Dame); Jeffrey Sluka of Massey University, New Zealand; and Kevin Avruch of George Mason University. These scholars wanted to establish a pioneering publishing venue through which the growing subfield of the anthropology of violence (sometimes called the anthropology of war and peace) could find a legitimate voice. Mahmood has directed this series, The Ethnography of Political Violence, from 1995 to the present.
In 2001 Cynthia Mahmood left the University of Maine to join the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. She also became Senior Fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, serving first as Undergraduate Director, then as Graduate Director, at the Institute. She led the Kroc in an expansion of its M.A. program to include a six-month field semester during which graduate students would experience hands-on training in peacebuilding at sites in Jerusalem, Mindanao, Kampala, and Capetown. The integration of theory and practice, and a perspective global in scope, is characteristic of all of Dr. Mahmood’s ventures.
The Kroc Institute won a “Blessed are the Peacemakers” award from Catholic Theological Union in 2008, with special notice of this innovative graduate program.
Cynthia Mahmood’s own research has now expanded from Punjab to the neighboring conflict in Kashmir, including wider interests in the Islamic world since September 11, 2001. She has made several research trips to Cyprus for comparative purposes. Mahmood was appointed a Core Faculty Member at Notre Dame’s Center for Asian Studies in 2004, and is a Faculty Associate in Gender Studies. She remains fascinated by religious motivations for militancy and the issues religious and ethnic collectivities face in an unequal world.
Cynthia currently lives in Mishawaka, Indiana with her daughter, Naintara, divorced from Khalid Mahmood since 2003. She continues to work as an “engaged scholar,” a committed teacher, and a dedicated writer. Dr. Mahmood is a Fellow of the American Anthropological Association and a member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
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