In a complex story about two anitpodal women, Deborah Scroggins delivers answers in Wanted Women: Faith, Lies & the War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali & Aafia Siddiqui.
The tales are discomfortingly familiar. Deborah Scroggins’ mission in Wanted Women is complicated: she is attempting to parallel women fighting on opposite sides of the war on terror. She succeeds, chiefly by illuminating the blind radicalism of both women and by emphasizing and deconstructing the mysteries surrounding Ayaan’s and Aafia’s lives.
For over twenty years, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has worked to destroy Islam, her own former religion, even at the cost of religious freedom. After moving to the Netherlands in 1992, Ayaan became a significant political figure known for her provocative demonization of Islam and her unflagging championing of Western ideology. Her role in the production of Theo van Gogh’s film Submission capitulated her into worldwide fame, and her 2007 autobiography, Infidel, was a New York Times bestseller.
But as Ayaan worked for the destruction of Islam, Aafia Siddiqui was working for global jihad. After her uncle, a terrorist known for his role in planning the 9/11 attacks, was arrested in 2003, Aafia was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, and she disappeared for more than five years. She was eventually arrested in Afghanistan for her involvement in planning various terrorist attacks, including the 9/11 attacks. In 2010, she was sentenced to 86 years in prison. Despite the evidence pointing to her guilt, thousands believe in Aafia’s innocence, and the website freeaafia.org is still working for her freedom.
These two women, poised at opposite ends of political and religious spectrums, share a single-mindedness perhaps more dangerous than either of the women’s actual activities. As Scroggins’ parallels events in the women’s lives, the most important—and most frightening—parallel is that of the world’s reaction. These two women are faces for movements that now shape entire countries, and the devotion of their followers feeds a tradition of fear.
Ayaan and Aafia were both raised in Islamic tradition by parents who believed in educating women. In fact, Ayaan attended a Muslim girls school, where she learned about jihad, wore a head scarf, and chastised her family for their lack of devotion. Her education was, in some ways, more traditional that Aafia’s; the Siddiquis sent Aafia to America for college, where she earned a PhD. in neurology. The women are matched in intelligence and temperament; after the 9/11 attacks, Ayaan and Aafia even reacted in remarkably similar ways. Scroggins describes Aafia “crying and praying” after the attacks, and Ayaan, immediately understanding the inevitability of Western retaliation, reacted with fear and agitation.
But somewhere along their paths, the two women diverged.
For Aafia, the attacks were a necessary step toward a righteous Muslim takeover; she saw jihad as a holy commandment. For Ayaan, 9/11 was a wake-up call, a reminder of the potential for violence tied to fundamental Islam. Ayaan told a television researcher, “That could have been me. I could have been one of those hijackers.”
It is a powerful moment in Scroggins’ chronology of events. From this point, Scroggins’ task becomes more difficult. Ayaan began to champion Western imperialism, declaring that the duty of the West is to subdue Islam—and all countries who support Islam. Aafia’s task, in the wake of Ayaan’s rise to fame, became easier. As the hatred of Muslims rose, it became easier to convince Muslims of the need for protection against the Western world—the need for jihad.
Simple statements encapsulate the similarity between Ayaan and Aafia. Ayaan, in an article asking her to comment on the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” stated that “Muhammad is a perverse man. A tyrant. He is against freedom of expression.” Aafia’s first husband, while a devoted Muslim, was concerned with Aafia’s dedication to jihad. Scroggins states that, in an attempt to shame him, Aafia told him he had to choose: “would he side with the party of God or the party of Satan?”
When Amjad refused to side with Aafia, she screamed and hit him, sparking mutual spousal abuse.
When asked to apologize for her statements, Ayaan declared, “I’m not going to apologize for the truth.”
Contrasts like these are delivered via Scroggins’ short, declarative chapters, leading the reader to personal conclusions about the nature of each woman’s obsession. Rarely does the author directly interject with her own evaluations.
When she does, the book falters. Most of the book is characterized by an objective tone that demonstrates unbiased understanding and, occasionally, compassion toward Ayaan and Aafia both. As Wanted Women nears a close, however, Scroggins’ criticism of the women intermittently comes through the prose in a jarring, harsh tone that does not suit her previous treatment of the subject, particularly in Scroggins’ observations of Ayaan’s behavior. These judgements, while they may be accurate, near cynicism and mar an otherwise balanced presentation of facts.
Despite these brief interruptions, Scroggins’ portrayal of Ayaan and Aafia demonstrates a commitment to journalism and truth, and her juxtaposition is enlightening. Scroggins brilliantly illuminates the complicated methods by which the two women’s fights enhanced the other. Each terrorist attack that Aafia helped plan or support fed Ayaan’s belief in the danger of Islam, and as Ayaan inspired world leaders to discriminate against Muslims, Aafia’s anger at Western arrogance grew. In clear, hard-hitting prose, Scroggins strips away a whirlwind of propaganda to elucidate Ayaan’s self-interested use of political systems and Aafia’s conflicted support of an ideological viewpoint that would have her confined under her husband’s rule. One phrase, uttered by Ayaan during an interview, perfectly describes—however paradoxically—the foundation of each woman’s beliefs: “I belong to no one, only to myself.” Ayaan and Aafia both isolated themselves from friends and family, using what resources they had to propel their plans forward. If only such dedication had been turned to unification rather than separation.
But what the reader pulls from Wanted Women actually has little to do with either Ayaan or Aafia. What is far more compelling is the story of how the world came to accept or reject the fanatical views of each woman. In the wake of Muslim victimization, Aafia’s photograph became a symbol of Western oppression, inspiring men and women to take up her cause. Ayaan’s language of division inspired lawmakers and citizens alike to fear the Muslim world and exclude its inhabitants. The world of opposing spectrums becomes a circle.
Wanted Women illuminates the pathways of fear, the methods by which the war on terror gained strength. But again, this book isn’t just about women or war. As fear tactics become, more and more, a staple of political campaigns, polarization becomes an easy step. Constantly we are asked, Will you side with God or Satan?
And in the legacy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui, there is no right answer.