Sunday Book Review

 
 

Islam and the West Through the Eyes of Two Women

WANTED WOMEN

Faith, Lies, and the War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui

By Deborah Scroggins

Illustrated. 539 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $27.99.

By ELIZA GRISWOLD
Published: January 27, 2012

Very few of the heroes and villains made famous in the wars of the past decade are women. Of the scant exceptions, two of the most fascinating are the subjects of Deborah Scroggins’s thoughtful double biography, “Wanted Women.”

One is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born thinker and neoconservative darling; the other is Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who, in 2010, was sentenced to 86 years in prison for her assault on American personnel in Afghanistan. She is known as Al Qaeda’s highest-ranking female associate.

The popular imagination has cast Hirsi Ali as a firebrand, clad in a satin evening gown and flanked by bodyguards as she denounces Islam. The diminutive Siddiqui is a firebrand of a different sort. She wears a burqa and totes vials of chemical weapons in her purse while denouncing the West. Yet the issue of who these self-made women actually are — and who they aren’t — remains deeply contested.

In 1992, Hirsi Ali fled from Africa to the Netherlands, where she won a bid for asylum and Dutch citizenship. She was elected to the Dutch Parliament in 2003. Thanks to her speeches, articles and participation in a short film called “Submission,” which depicted verses of the Koran on a woman’s naked body, as well as to her two successful autobiographies, “Infidel” and “Nomad,” she has been embraced both by many feminists and many on the American right. She argues that “Islam is backward,” and that its values must be stamped out before they overwhelm the West. Her most vociferous supporters — including her husband, the historian Niall Ferguson — consider her to be one of the staunchest defenders of freedom in our time. The late Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “The three most beautiful words in the emerging language of secular resistance to tyranny are Ayaan Hirsi Ali.” Her critics, however, claim that her views are simplistic and, more harshly, that she is an opportunist.

Siddiqui is similarly polarizing. She traveled from her home in Karachi to the United States in 1989 to pursue her education, which she did at M.I.T. and Brandeis University. She eventually married Amjad Khan, a doctor from Karachi, bore him three children and completed the requirements for her master’s degree and Ph.D. in neuroscience in less than four years. At the same time she was embracing the most millenarian principles of jihad. In 2002, after the F.B.I. had begun investigating her for links to Al Qaeda, she returned to Pakistan and soon disappeared, only to be spotted in Ghazni, Afghanistan, along with her 12-year-old son in 2008. Maps, toxic chemicals and diagrams for making bombs were found in her possession, and after a tussle with American forces during which she was shot in the stomach, she was taken into custody. Her defenders — including her family and many Pakistanis — believe she is a devout mother and martyred hero sentenced to American prison because she is a Muslim. The United States government contends she is a terrorist.

In “Wanted Women,” Scroggins traces the lives of Hirsi Ali and Siddiqui from their earliest childhoods down to the present. Hirsi Ali continues to live in the United States; Siddiqui now resides in Fort Worth, Tex., where she is incarcerated at the Federal Medical Center Carswell and receiving psychiatric treatment.

Alternating between the two women, Scroggins explores what she calls “their weird symmetry,” examining how the forces of contemporary history — war, poverty, colonialism and politics — have forged these “icons of the war on terror.” She writes: “When it came to dealing with the crises of Islam, they were mirror opposites, but there were hints in their complicated backgrounds that each woman might have gone in a very different direction, perhaps even to the extent of Aafia Siddiqui becoming a Westernizing feminist and Ayaan Hirsi Ali becoming a militant Islamist.”

These linked narratives may seem at first to be simply a reductive gimmick based on the fact that both women were born as Muslims and educated in the West. Yet Scroggins, who has been an award-­winning foreign correspondent for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is a thorough reporter and an astute analyst of global events. Because of her willingness to introduce readers to over a century of Islamic theology and politics, a book that might have been a facile juxtaposition of two very different individuals is actually much more than the sum of its parts. “I had felt for years,” she writes, “that the suppression of women was as basic to the ideology of radical Islam as racism had been to the old American South or as anti-Semitism was to Nazi Germany.”

Eliza Griswold, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of “The Tenth Parallel.”

 

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