The Washington Post, by Rachel Newcomb, 3/4/12
“Wanted Women: Faith, Lies & the War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali & Aafia Siddiqui
by Deborah Scroggins
By Rachel Newcomb, Published: March 2, 2012
“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.
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.
“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.
Rachel Newcomb is an associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College and the author of “Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco.”