Deborah Scroggins’ impressive dual biography traces the lives of two extraordinary and controversial women who became the subjects of a global heated and emotional debate about Islam and the world order. No matter what your opinion about these women, this uncannily juxtaposed book will broaden your understanding of how Aafia Siddiqui and Ayaan Hirsi Ali came to represent radical extremes on the spectrum of Muslim belief.
This book does the worthy task of separating the highly charged and pervasive rhetoric about these women from the complexities that rarely surface in the mainstream media. It highlights Ali’s disconnect from her family and how the story she relates of her past is different in their memories. It points to the conflicting statements made by Siddiqui and her family about her children and her whereabouts during the five years she was missing.
Each short chapter in the book alternates between the Ali’s and Siddiqui’s stories roughly chronologically. Scroggins delves into Ali’s family background, her father’s role as a Somali revolutionary, Ali’s brief flirtation with Islam, her two brief marriages (of which the latter facilitated her passage to Holland), and her rise to political and intellectual stardom in the West. Alongside her story, Scroggins relates Siddiqui’s family’s orthodox Deobandi background and strong political ties with the Zia regime, her education as a neuroscientist in the U.S., and her first marriage and divorce. She explores, in great detail, Siddiqui’s association with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and marriage to his nephew, the multiple and conflicting perspectives about her disappearance for five years, the shooting incident in Ghazni, Afghanistan, her arrest, and her eventual sentencing to life in federal prison.
Reading about these two women’s lives in a parallel fashion is hardly a comfortable experience. I often found myself so engrossed in one woman’s story that I was reluctant to make the switch to the other. The difference becomes especially pronounced in the second half of the book because of the impossibility of narrating their stories in the same fashion. While Hirsi’s life is shaped by mainly ideological and political battles involving the Dutch government, her media appearances, and her relations with her family, Siddiqui’s is mired in a web of conspiracy, association with jihadi groups, confusion about her whereabouts, and passionate pleas on her behalf by figures such as Yvonne Ridley.
As creative and jarring as the pairing of these stories is, it begs the question: how are these women comparable? As Scroggins points out in the conclusion of the book, there is an indisputable difference between a woman who provokes through words and a woman who actively partakes in violence. However, both Ali and Siddiqui insist that a clash of civilizations is inevitable, and it is impossible for “Western” ideals and Islam to coexist. Scroggins also does an excellent job of demonstrating how their perceived roles instigate a clash of civilizations, making their forebodings grotesquely self-fulfilling prophecies. Were it not for Ayaan Hirsi Ali creating the highly provoking film Submission, the gruesome murder of Theo Van Gogh would not have occurred and so deeply affirmed Ali’s statements about the impossibility of assimilation. Aafia Siddiqui’s insistence on the Western war on Islam becomes expounded in her supporters’ fiery rhetoric surrounding her alleged secret imprisonment and torture.
As I read the book, I was reminded of a point made by Melissa Harris Perry during her discussion with Leila Ahmed and Mona Eltahawy: as an academic, she loves nuance, but as a media personality, she knows firsthand that it is the loud, radical, controversial ideas and action that get heard. This trend makes it all the more important to read in-depth accounts about figures such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui, whose extreme perspectives cause uproars and obscure the details surrounding their lives and actions.
This an excellent book for anyone who seeks a more informed understanding of these women and what they came to represent in a post-9/11 highly polarized environment. It also provides a way of examining how the biases opinions that exist about Siddiqui and Ali have been shaped by the emotions these women usually provoke in both their supporters and opposition.
Sarah Farrukh completed her B.Sc. in Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and is currently a Masters of Information student at the University of Toronto. She writes about faith and books at A Muslimah Writes.
(Photo Credit: Harper Collins)