Opinion: Two lives

‘Wanted Women’ explores extreme edges of post-9/11 ‘clash of civilizations’

By Elisabeth Eaves Sunday, January 15, 2012

“Wanted Women: Faith, Lies & the War on Terror”
by Deborah Scroggins
Harper, $14.99
BUY NOWDeborah Scroggins gives her new book a structure most writers would do well to avoid. A double biography told in alternating chapters of two women whose lives never cross, “Wanted Women”  tells the stories of Aafia Siddiqui, an advocate of extreme violence in the name of Islam, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who also started life a Muslim but became a major critic of the religion. They are close to the same age — Siddiqui was born in Pakistan in 1972 and Hirsi Ali in Somalia in 1969 — and both moved to Western countries in early adulthood.

Scroggins, a journalist and the author of “Emma’s War,” about a British aid worker who marries a Sudanese warlord, has done impressive reporting. Though she didn’t have the cooperation of either woman, she tracked down Hirsi Ali’s relatives on three continents and knocked on doors in Pakistan to try to glean more about Siddiqui’s ties to al Qaeda.

The broad outlines of Hirsi Ali’s life story are well-known from her best-selling autobiographies “Infidel” and “Nomad.” She became a refugee from Somalia’s civil war in Kenya in 1980, and later escaped a betrothal to a fellow Somali, landing in the Netherlands at age 22. She studied political science at a university, became an atheist, and entered national politics on a platform of defending the rights of Muslim women.

Hirsi Ali’s political ascent coincided with rising anxiety about Muslim immigration in Europe and all the political stock-taking that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A magnetic speaker, she criticized Islam for putting groupthink ahead of individual rights and for its fixation on controlling women. Scroggins writes that Hirsi Ali’s “willingness to speak openly about aspects of Islam that bothered Westerners came as a huge relief to many people.” On Jan. 22, 2003, she was elected to the Dutch parliament.

The trajectory of Siddiqui, who would be named one of the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists in 2004, is full of apparent contradictions. Raised in Pakistan in an ultraconservative Muslim family, she became more hard-core in her faith while studying in the United States. As a biology student at MIT, she raised money for organizations like the Benevolence International Foundation, later described by U.S. prosecutors as a front for al Qaeda. She married Mohammed Amjad Khan, a Pakistani doing his medical residency in Boston.

At seven months pregnant, she began a doctoral program in neuroscience at Brandeis, the university founded by American Jews as an answer to religious discrimination — despite the rabid anti-Semitism of her jihadist cohorts. A compelling public speaker, by 1994 she was addressing audiences in Boston, preaching the virtues of jihad at fundraisers for the Islamist organization Al-Kifah.

After 9/11, Siddiqui began insisting that it was unsafe for the family to remain in the United States, and in 2002 she moved with her two children and reluctant husband back to Pakistan. After many fights over what, exactly, their religion required of them — she wanted her husband to go fight in Afghanistan, he wanted to become an exemplary doctor — the couple divorced. Her second marriage was to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nephew, and the FBI believes she assisted Mohammed in a plot to blow up U.S. gas stations.

In 2003, Siddiqui disappeared for five years. In the chapters devoted to this part of her life, the author chases down lead after lead and comes up frustrated. She speaks with Hamid Mir, Osama bin Laden’s authorized biographer, who tells her that “Our women are more extremist than our men.” In 2008, Afghan police found Siddiqui, who shot at American officials when they came to interrogate her. A U.S. federal court ultimately convicted her of attempted murder and sentenced her to 86 years. As of 2010, she sits in a federal prison in Texas.

While Siddiqui’s life spiraled downward, Hirsi Ali’s career soared. She comes across as a fierce and articulate defender of her beliefs, but one who is not always well-versed in what she’s talking about, and whose combativeness and extreme anti-Muslim stance often seem to serve no productive purpose other than to advance her career. While she was a researcher at a think tank, she drafted an article calling the Jewish mayor of Amsterdam, whom she saw as not being hard enough on Muslims, “Ayatollah Cohen.”

Scroggins writes that when Hirsi Ali moved from Holland to the United States, where she became a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, she found that some of her ideas were not as well received as they had been in Europe. “Her new American colleagues reacted with dismay when she criticized Christianity and Judaism alongside Islam,” Scroggins writes. “Her attacks on Islam … were often so harsh that they startled even the neocons.” In one interview, she compared Islam to Nazism. In another, when asked if she meant that the West had to crush Islam “militarily,” she answered, “in all forms.”

Despite the parallels, the split narrative of “Wanted Women” can be awkward and its purpose unclear. It would be a little like writing a dual biography of 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens — a glamorous hawk and atheist like Hirsi Ali, as well as her friend. The protagonists may be ideological enemies, but placing their personal trajectories side by side doesn’t necessarily tell us more than two separate biographies would.

Sticking to reportorial neutrality for most of the book, Scroggins only hints near the end at a larger purpose for her biographical juxtaposition. “It felt to me,” she writes, “that those mirror opposites, Ayaan and Aafia, had conspired somehow — unconsciously, to be sure — to aggravate the ‘clash of civilizations’ that each woman insisted was unavoidable.”

That, if anything, is the unifying theme of the book: the “clash of civilizations” theory of the post 9/11 world, which says that the great conflict of our era will be a zero-sum battle between Islam and the West. Without posing the question directly, the book inspires the reader to ask: Is this a useful model for understanding the world?

Beyond all its other flaws, Hirsi Ali’s scorched-earth approach is unhinged from the reality that there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, stretched across myriad languages and cultures. The Islamic reformation will come from within the Muslim world or not at all, and the biggest blow to Islamic extremism in recent years has not been an attack from the West, but the Arab Spring. Ordinary citizens showed their co-religionists that extremism isn’t the only answer to poverty and oppression. If Islamic parties have made gains in elections, the ballot box still offers a nonviolent, previously nonexistent channel for religious expression.

In the end, Hirsi Ali offers a poor diagnosis and prescription for defeating the murderous fundamentalism that Siddiqui represents. Fortunately, an answer is at hand, but it leaves the extreme viewpoints of both “Wanted Women” out. Scroggins’ impressive body of research will stand as a history of two influential strains of thought — both of which are now sidelined where they belong.

Elisabeth Eaves is a columnist for The Daily.

 

 

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