[NOTE: Updating now that the Syrian government has cheerily started reporting on this: “MacMaster’s hoax aimed at enhancing continuous fabrications and lies against Syria in term of kidnapping bloggers and activists.”
MacMaster claims he is trying to “educate” others about the conditions in the Mideast. Yet he didn’t think of how the Syrian government could use his charade for their purposes if it was ever discovered? One really has to wonder if his motives were as pure as he’d like us to believe.]
I freely admit to being one of the many people around the world who was taken in by the hoax perpetrated by the blog “A Gay Girl In Damascus.” I applaud Ali Abunimah for his dogged efforts at exposing this sham, and thank him for doing so.
Any of you who have followed my bursts on Twitterabout this know I’m angry about it. Perhaps it’s because I hate being suckered. But I think the reasons are much deeper
Tom MacMaster, the charlatan who perpetrated this hoax, initially issued a very thin apology, where he blamed “liberal orientalism” for the controversy. He later posted a much more sincere and convincing apology.
OK, what more could he do? He can’t be expected to rake himself over hot coals or something. But we should still take a long, hard look at this and understand just why so many activists were angered at what he did.
The real-life Syrian activist Sami Hamwi sums it up nicely in his blistering attack on MacMaster: “I say shame on you!!! There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country…We have to deal with more difficulties than you can imagine. What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us fearful about (pursuing) our…activism…Your apology is not accepted, since I have myself started to investigate Amina’s arrest. I could have put myself in a grave danger inquiring about a fictitious figure.”
Sami Hamwi himself uses a pseudonym to edit the web site GayMiddleEast.com. And I’m sure more than a few of you are now saying “How can we believe that Hamwi is a real person? If Amina was a hoax, why couldn’t Hamwi be as well?”
That’s one very obvious problem. People use pseudonyms in writing all the time. I used one for a while because my former employer, B’Tselem, forbade me from writing about politics. So I wrote as Moshe Yaroni. People like Hamwi have far, far more dangerous threats from their activities than I faced. Now, thanks to MacMaster, they have one more reason to wonder if they should take the chance—after all, why risk life and limb to inform people of what is going on under severely repressive governments if people are not going to take what you say seriously anyway?
Even more directly, if there has been one frustration in the US and Europe about Middle Eastern issues, it has been the incredible difficulty in getting the general public to hear Arab voices. By “Arab voices” I mean the voices of the people in the region, not those of the dictatorial governments, quisling opportunists in office or firebrand militants, but those of Arab people trying to do what everyone else is—make a living, provide for their families and find some enjoyment in life.
In my work, I have always ensured that I speak in my own voice—as an American Jew, with my own beliefs, political and social, and from the perspective my identity both offers me and limits me to. I may empathize with Israelis in some contexts, with Palestinians in others, and I offer my views as an analyst based on almost thirty years of study and experience with the people, Israeli Jews and Arabs from various countries, living the situation.
But MacMaster decided that wasn’t good enough, and so he, a white, married man who lives in societies where, despite very real risk to life and limb and other forms of bigotry, LGBT people can live openly if they wish to brave the prejudice they will face, impersonated a lesbian activist in Syria.
He hurt people in real and measurable ways, not least the woman who thought she was pursuing an online relationship with MacMaster’s doppelganger. But he also used his own privilege to speak for the voiceless, but in his own voice.
Perhaps his intentions were noble, perhaps not. It doesn’t matter.
I have always believed that one of the most important role American activists can play in this debate is to open it up. That means allowing, indeed encouraging, the airing of views with which we may disagree.
Yet, too often, the proponents of, for example, a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the implementation of full return of Palestinian refugees are white, privileged activists, sometimes Jewish sometimes gentile.
Those views should be heard freely as well. I disagree with the views, but support their expression, and do not appreciate it when the very real issue of anti-Semitism is used to intimidate people from expressing those views or to frighten community center away from holding fora where they can be expressed.
But the arguments need to be heard from those with a direct stake in them, or they lose a good deal of power. Yes, we do hear these arguments from Palestinians, other Arabs and Arab-Americans as well, but those are far from the dominant voices in the conversation.
Arab bloggers and writers can have a powerful impact. Look at how much impact the twitter activist called “Sandmonkey” had on information coming out of the Egyptian protests, or how much a journalist like Mona Eltahawy was able to provide an Arab face to those events and bring people into support for them. If I, or any other white American, had uttered those same words, the weight would have been considerably lessened.
That’s where the real damage of MacMaster’s hoax lies, and where his real ethical problem stems from. He, as a white European married man usurped the genuine voice of Arabs, Arab women, Arab lesbians. Maybe some good will come out of it, and we in the West will seek out genuine voices in the Arab world who can illuminate their experiences for us and give us the greater understanding of that world, in all its complexity, that we in the US so desperately need.
But, while I, in my cynicism, may sometimes believe the ends justify the means, it is not so in this case. A lesbian in Syria still has to face both the threat of repression for her identity from her government as well as the reality that her oppression will be used in the West as it always has been—to reinforce the image of Arabs as backward and narrow-minded religious fanatics who need to be “educated” by us. Not to mention the use Israel makes of LGBT issues to support its image as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” (Israel certainly does offer far more freedom for LGBT folks than its neighbors, but this hardly justifies its occupation).
Macmaster made that situation worse. He apologized, and that’s all he can do. Now, it’s up to us to try to turn his crime into a positive development. We do that by hearing Arab voices and making sure our neighbors do too, even if they are saying things we don’t always want to hear.