Seven years ago I set out to trace the lives of two Muslim women who were becoming Joan-of-Arc figures for what the Bush Administration used to call "the global war on terror." The first was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born activist and author of the bestselling autobiography "Infidel," whose life was threatened for her criticisms of Islam. The second was Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who was being hunted as an accomplice of al-Qaeda and who is now serving an 86-year sentence in federal prison. One striking thing I learned was that both for jihadis, on one side, and also for some Westerners, talking about the place of Muslim women became a kind of code for talking about the power of the West in Muslim societies.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali rose to worldwide fame after the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, her collaborator on a short movie decrying Islam's treatment of women, was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam. Hirsi Ali was often described as a feminist and advocate of free speech, but her criticisms of Islam went much further than that. She called the Prophet Muhammad a pervert and a tyrant, and said Muslims should stop seeing him as their guide to moral behavior. She said the West and its culture were far superior to that of Islam, and she even asserted that the West needed to crush Islam militarily.
Hirsi Ali's sweeping denunciations thrilled many American and European conservatives, who praised her as a "feminist hawk" and accused her critics of capitulating to her jihadi enemies. Near the height of this ideological frenzy, The Times of London in 2007 declared the question of whether the Netherlands should keep paying for her bodyguards even after she moved to the United States to be a litmus test in a new culture war. Real progressives would demand that Dutch taxpayers pay, while phony progressives would disagree, the paper said.
What got drowned out in this noisy drama were the voices of thousands of women who were and are bravely working for change within their own Muslim communities. Those I interviewed in the Netherlands said that Hirsi Ali's condemnation of Islam and Muslims actually hindered their efforts to free Muslim women from the strictures of religion and culture. Some women were so angered by Hirsi Ali's statements, and by the applause they excited from the Dutch public, that they began wearing veils in protest. One Muslim woman told me that Hirsi Ali made her life as a feminist ten times harder because Hirsi Ali associated feminism with the hatred of Muslims.
Hirsi Ali's mirror opposite, Aafia Siddiqui, had a similar effect in Pakistan but for different reasons. She also made life harder for women's rights activists. When Siddiqui disappeared in 2003, after the FBI announced it wanted to question her about al-Qaeda, Pakistanis assumed that the Pakistani government or the CIA had locked her in one of their secret prisons. Then in 2008 she was arrested in Afghanistan and charged with shooting at the US soldiers and investigators who came to question her. By the time she went to trial in Manhattan, in 2010, a good deal of evidence had emerged that she had spent the years between her disappearance and her capture on the run in Pakistan. Yet Pakistan's "honor squad" of Islamist and nationalistic politicians and pundits insisted that Siddiqui had been secretly imprisoned and tortured for years by the US and its Pakistani allies. Anyone who questioned Siddiqui's story, meanwhile - or suggested that Pakistani women had other things to worry about -- was accused of siding with the West against a persecuted "Daughter of the Nation."
One can only hope that the use of women's rights as hypocritical weapons in "the global war on terror" will be retired along with the name. But I wouldn't hold my breath.
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