“I think that we are at war with Islam,” Somali-Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali said in a 2007 interview. “And there’s no middle ground in wars.”
In “Wanted Women,” journalist Deborah Scroggins uses the biographies of Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim, and Aafia Siddiqui, alleged to be one of the few female members of al-Qaeda, to tell a larger story about the war on terror. Hirsi Ali and Siddiqui represent two extremes in this war: on the one hand, the view that Islam is evil, and on the other, the sense that everything emanating from the West must be destroyed. Scroggins attempts to give a thorough biographical treatment to two women who remain enigmas, despite their status as public figures.
The book alternates between each woman’s story, making for riveting suspense. Of the two, Siddiqui will be less familiar to Western readers, though she is widely revered in Pakistan. She attended MIT and later received a doctorate in neuroscience from Brandeis, married a Pakistani physician and gave birth to three children. Scroggins documents Siddiqui’s growing radicalism and the subsequent unraveling of her marriage and her career. Under suspicion by the FBI for her links to key al-Qaeda operatives, Siddiqui fled the United States for Pakistan in 2003, and for five years her trail went cold. From the time of her disappearance until she resurfaced in a dusty Afghan town in 2008, bearing explosives and bomb-making documents, Siddiqui had become a hero to Pakistanis, who believed that she was being held and tortured by the U.S. government.
By contrast, Hirsi Ali has been lauded in the West, in part for her willingness, as a former Muslim, to publicly criticize the religion. Supposedly fleeing a forced marriage, Hirsi Ali came to Holland, where she gained refugee status and became enamored of the freedoms of a democratic society. After learning Dutch and finishing college, she worked first as a translator, then later became a member of the Dutch parliament. Welcomed as a refreshing, charismatic presence on the Dutch political scene, Hirsi Ali “was cool, even analytical, yet she radiated passion.” In 2004, she collaborated with filmmaker Theo van Gogh on a documentary that featured, in addition to women narrating their stories of abuse by Muslim men, a woman praying, her naked body covered with gauzy veils and etched with verses from the Koran. When van Gogh was murdered on the street by a second-generation Dutch-Moroccan immigrant, Hirsi Ali had to temporarily go into hiding, and she has traveled with bodyguards ever since.
Yet as controversies over immigrants in Holland heated up, critics of Hirsi Ali dug up her application for refugee status and found several falsehoods. The forced marriage was, in fact, consensual, and Hirsi Ali already had refugee status in Kenya, which, if disclosed, would have precluded her from applying in Holland.
Scroggins suggests that self-promotion, rather than humanitarianism, has been Hirsi Ali’s principal motivation. Throughout the book, she cites numerous examples of Muslim public intellectuals and activists who have dedicated their careers to writing about the dangers of political Islam or helping Muslim victims of domestic violence. Yet these scholars and activists have worked for years in obscurity, while Hirsi Ali has garnered tremendous media attention. In 2008, Scroggins writes, Foreign Policy named her “one of the world’s leading public intellectuals despite her output of one ghostwritten memoir, one collection of heavily edited journalism, and some op-ed pieces.”
Perhaps because of Hirsi Ali’s more extensive career in the public eye, Scroggins is able to document her life more fully than Siddiqui’s. The author’s discussion of Siddiqui’s marriage and her years in the United States, constructed from interviews with her ex-husband and other family members, provides the most detailed picture we have of her. After her disappearance, she becomes more of a shadowy legend than a flesh-and-blood woman. Yet Scroggins turns this ambiguity into an advantage, giving readers a greater understanding of Pakistan’s conflicted role in the war on terror. Siddiqui’s story makes clear that Pakistani authorities show vastly different faces to the United States than to their own people, and the authorities’ tales of Siddiqui’s whereabouts during the years of her disappearance contradict themselves, depending on the occasion.
Most notable about these two women is that their supporters seem, for the most part, unfazed by any evidence that might challenge their legendary reputations. Faced with mounting controversy in Holland, Hirsi Ali simply moved to the United States, where the conservative American Enterprise Institute offered her a professional home in its think tank. Meanwhile, Siddiqui became a hero to legions of Pakistanis who believe her to be an innocent victim of the war on terror, a charity worker and activist unjustly imprisoned for wearing a veil, in some accounts.
Although Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali are radically different women, both seem to see the world in black-and-white terms. This has made them convenient political symbols for both Islamists and conservative Westerners. While control of women, Scroggins says, “remains fundamental to radical Islam,” she argues that “Westerners who want to keep the Muslim world under Western rule also have used Islamic attitudes toward women not so much to help free Muslim women as to justify the West’s continued domination of Muslim men.” Ultimately, she suggests, the two women’s public prominence illustratives paternalistic attitudes on both sides, neither of which is particularly interested in tolerating ambiguity.
“Wanted Women” manages to evoke the complexity in both women’s backgrounds, despite their rigid positions and their often maddening single-mindedness. Siddiqui and Hirsi Ali, Scroggins writes, “are products of our migratory times. Like many others of their generation, they grew up on the move between countries and cultures, and they took refuge in universal identities.” While neither woman proves to be especially sympathetic, in Scroggins’s telling, their lives make a fascinating story that reflects this polarized era.
Faith, Lies and the War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui
By Deborah Scroggins
Harper. 539 pp. $27.99