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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Wanted Women’

- - Wednesday, January 25, 2012

WANTED WOMEN: FAITH, LIES, AND THE WAR ON TERROR: THE LIVES OF AYAAN HIRSI ALI AND AAFIA SIDDIQUI
By Deborah Scroggins
Harper, $27.99, 539 pages

"Wanted Women: Faith, Lies, and the War on Terror: The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui" is a good book. Or rather, two. Deborah Scroggins takes Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the critic of Islam and former Dutch parliamentarian, down a few pegs. She even splices the 42-year-old Somali writer's life story together with that of an Islamist terrorist who, like Ms. Hirsi Ali, was raised Muslim in a foreign land, emigrated here and gained notoriety in the years after Sept. 11, 2001. Ms. Scroggins, foreign correspondent for Vogue and the Nation, uses a perverse format. Her short chapters ping back and forth between the two women. My advice: Read only the odd-numbered chapters (Ms. Siddiqui) for awhile, then read some even-numbered ones (Ms. Hirsi Ali). Repeat until done. It's irritating, but the insights gained are worth it.

We Americans were not well-equipped to understand how it was that Ms. Hirsi Ali, now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, got bounced from the Netherlands in 2006. We knew this up-by-her-bootstraps immigrant had falsified her application for asylum in the Netherlands. As she herself admitted during her candidacy for parliament, she had not been fleeing civil war in her native Somalia, as she had claimed, but poverty and Islamist strictures in Kenya's Somali community, her actual place of residence. What most people did not know about were the two husbands she ditched to aid her escape to the West. (They weren't great husbands, but still ... .)

We knew, too, that the Dutch are inept at dealing with non-European minorities in their midst, especially those with pernicious customs - like the jihadi who killed Theo van Gogh, Ms. Hirsi Ali's filmmaking partner, after the two released "Submission," a vulgar movie short lambasting Islam's treatment of women. But we on this side of the Atlantic may have overestimated the Dutch fear of being targeted for violence along with van Gogh and Ms. Hirsi Ali.

Ms. Scroggins shows what a bind the Dutch were put in by the provocative Ms. Hirsi Ali, a once-dogmatic Muslim turned fierce critic of barbaric practices such as honor killing and female genital mutilation. It turns out that in little socialistic countries, no controversialist can guard himself against physical threats. That task falls to the state, the only entity with the requisite resources and the license to bear arms. Dutch authorities were spending loads of euros on guards, vehicle convoys and the bulletproofing of apartment windows. They were doing this for an elected official whose immigration status was shaky at a time when the Netherlands' lax immigration laws were being reformed and other deceptive asylum-seekers were getting deported.

Where Ms. Hirsi Ali's early years were marked by family instability and deprivation, the opposite was true of 39-year-old Aafia Siddiqui. Her neurosurgeon father and religious activist mother were part of Pakistan's elite, influential members of the Deobandi sect, which has spawned as much terrorism as the Iranian Revolution and Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. Ms. Siddiqui's mother raised Aafia to be "a true mujahida" version of the late Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's female prime minister. The daughter was to go to the West and excel there - to help conquer it for Islam.

Excel Ms. Siddiqui did. She earned a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience from Brandeis University. She wanted to marry a jihadi but accepted the person her parents picked for her, a Pakistani immigrant to Boston. He was dedicated to his medical studies, not armed combat on behalf of Allah. Their differences caused the doctor to divorce her after they had three children together.

The second time around, she would wed Ammar al-Baluchi, a nephew of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who helped KSM train the Sept. 11 hijackers. This second union took place hurriedly in Pakistan, with Ms. Siddiqui and al-Baluchi on the lam after participating in KSM's foiled plot to blow up gas stations on the U.S. East Coast. In 2008, members of the U.S. military picked up Ms. Siddiqui and her 11-year-old son in Ghazni, Afghanistan, after she shot at them. The boy said he and his mother were on a suicide mission.

Ms. Scroggins pieced together Ms. Siddiqui's movements by delving into Pakistan's military-intelligence-Deobandi complex. From those murky precincts, all the way to U.S. cities where highly educated people like Ms. Siddiqui move about freely, plans are gestating. "Wanted Women" is as alarming as it is informative - for how can every such plan be derailed?

The book's climax is a biographical linkage, and it is a gruesome one. Ammar al-Baluchi videotaped KSM and one other person slaughtering Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002, and this horrendous video, seen by countless viewers on the Internet, inspired Mohammed Bouyeri to kill Ms. Hirsi Ali's collaborator, van Gogh, on the streets of Amsterdam in 2004. This is a stunning connection, but it fails to make Ms. Siddiqui and Ms. Hirsi Ali mirror images of each other.

That is how they seem to Ms. Scroggins, or so she says in justification of her interpolated structure. Each woman gained legions of admirers who ignored her faults, and so the two are "parallel lives," she says. Ms. Scroggins goes to great lengths to suggest that Ms. Hirsi Ali's harping on the oppression of Muslim women has done more harm than good. I don't buy it. I do see that in Ms. Hirsi Ali we have a real-life Becky Sharp or Scarlet O'Hara - someone who used her wiles and charisma to beat adversity. Such figures practice manipulation, and that's wrong, yet there's something almost amusing about the pliability of the world in their hands.

The author is right that both women interpret Islam in a malign way. Unfortunately, Ms. Hirsi Ali too sweepingly condemns all of Islam, and in the end, all religious faith. Ms. Scroggins does not omit drawing the key distinction before winding up the book: Ms. Siddiqui is violent; Ms. Hirsi Ali fights only with words. It is an obvious point, and it means that really, there's no comparison.

Lauren Weiner was a speechwriter for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates from 2007 to 2010.