Thursday, August 29, 2013

Sick of Aafia Siddiqui

Going through the news this morning I read an item that said Pakistan's about to sign the Council of Europe Convention which will enable prisoners jailed in signatories' countries to be transferred back to Pakistan. This means that the Pakistani government can request for Pakistani prisoners abroad to be returned to Pakistan.

Yet the news item was not called "Pakistan to Sign Prisoner Transfer Agreement", but "Getting Afia Home: Pakistan Cabinet Approves Signing of Council of Europe Convention". And the blurb on Facebook where I caught notice of the news had a photograph of Afia Siddiqui with the caption: "Signing of the treaty will allow repatriation of Aafia Siddiqui!"

In case you don't know who Aafia Siddiqui is, she's an MIT- and Brandeis-trained Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of terrorism charges and jailed in the United States for an 86-year term.  The official position, held by both Pakistan and the United States, is that she is guilty of being connected to Al-Qaeda and doing various operational jobs for them in the  United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. There are pages and pages of evidence about the kinds of things she was doing: obtaining and transferring information about dirty bomb-making (chemical and biological), helping to finance organizations linked with terrorism, and traveling to the US to open a PO Box to be used by terrorists, amongst other crimes.

She disappeared for a very long period - at least five years - after divorcing her first husband, a physician. She vanished with her three young children and reappeared in Ghazni jail in Afghanistan, amidst allegations that she had been kidnapped by special forces, tortured, and imprisoned illegally. The reason she was jailed for 86 years was that US soldiers claimed while she was being interrogated she picked up one of the soldier's guns and tried to shoot them. This is disputed by Siddiqui and her family (her sister has been her most vocal supporter), and she says she merely stood up to see who was behind a curtain and that the soldiers shot her for no reason.

On the other hand, many Pakistani people - as many call them, the Ghairatmand Brigade, those super-patriots whose primary obsession is Pakistan's "honor" as a nation, as opposed to how Pakistan actually behaves amongst the international community - have taken Aafia as a cause celebre. They say there were many human rights violations during her trial, the evidence against her is unclear, and that she has been framed and persecuted because the US wanted to muscle its way over the Pakistani people. And they support her as a heroine who stood up to Western imperialism, by the very fact of her being jailed and tortured, as if she were a prisoner of conscience along the lines of Nelson Mandela or Aun San Suu Kyi.

"How could a slight, tiny woman pick up such a huge gun and shoot people?" is the question I heard over and over again when she was being tried in New York City in an anti-terrorism court. And it's that patronizing question, couched in concern for this poor little good-girl-gone-bad that really symbolizes the crux of the matter of Aafia Siddiqui: the small, helpless victim (Pakistan) pitted against tough, huge soldiers (America), accused of things she can't possibly have committed. Everyone loves a David and Goliath story, and when it's a woman, well, the honor of Pakistanis is provoked and they must stand up to defend their sister, daughter, mother, or whatever other image this woman brings to their minds.

(Never mind that a woman even of small stature can certainly be strong enough to lift heavy guns - don't worry, it won't break her weak, delicate hands - and that Siddiqui in fact trained in pistol shooting in Massachusetts, so was able to handle weapons...never mind that Siddiqui dumped her first husband to marry the nephew of Khalid Shaikh Muhammed, and dragged her children through years of pain and suffering on her international adventures. Oh, and best of all, never mind that Siddiqui is an American citizen.)

I'm not so concerned with whether or not Siddiqui is a terrorist. There's enough evidence of her activities to prove that she was certainly mixed up in the wrong kinds of activities, and running with the wrong crowd. What I am confused by is the national obsession with this woman, her elevation to the status of saint, and how she's become a legend, a figure of folklore and a symbol of resistance to Western imperialism to so many people in Pakistan when it's so clear that she has not been truly serving our country in any tangible, unequivocally positive way.

I was a student at Wellesley at the same time that Siddiqui was at MIT (we're the same age) and I used to attend the MSA meetings at MIT from time to time. It's even possible that I met or saw Siddiqui at one of the meetings, but I don't particularly remember. I stopped going to the meetings because I sensed a real resentment of women who didn't wear hijabs - I was one of those. Beyond that, I could see how the ethos was becoming extremely conservative, flavored with that peculiar brand of Wahaabiism that was starting to spread across the United States even before it truly poisoned Pakistan. And even though I was very young at the time, hardly 18 or 19, I knew that this wasn't the environment for me.

There are so many things about this case that make me think Siddiqui truly became unbalanced, as so many people do, because of the stress of living abroad and the loneliness and vulnerability that accompany you when you're far away from family. It's easy to see how a young girl could find a sense of belonging and community in a group comprised of many countrywomen and countrymen, in the name of Islam. What happened to her after our paths diverged can be seen in the lives of so many of our people in Pakistan who fall under the influence of a radical path, and go the wrong way.

And so my question to so many Pakistanis who support her, who call her "Daughter of the Nation", who curse the West (and here's the funny thing: Siddiqui had hatred for Jews and didn't want Jews on her jury, but she got her degree from Brandeis University which is one of America's major Jewish institutions of higher learning - another clue to the weakness of her mind and the parroting of the popular refrain that "the Jews" are the cause of all the Muslim world's problems) and say she was sexually tortured: what exactly did Aafia Siddiqui do for Pakistan?

All I can see is a woman who, instead of using her degree to better her nation, instead of putting in the dedicated hours of research and study to improving our country, committed herself to a controversial and amoral path because she was convinced that she was on a holy mission against "the West" and even her own country. All I can see is a woman who was blind to any sort of self-analysis about whether she was truly on the correct path. All I can see is a woman who was dedicated to death and destruction, even if it was of her perceived enemy. This is as antithetical to the tenets of Islam and to the tenets of humanism as it can get.

Aafia Siddiqui can be your heroine, but if you don't see the selfishness and the arrogance and the utter futility of her actions, then you're welcome to her. 

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