A Straight Man in Scotland: The Syrian Blogger Hoax

Photo via "Free Amina" Facebook group.

I do not get angry easily, but when I do, it’s intense and consuming and exhausting.  And right now I am not only angry, but I am disappointed and dismayed and upset to the point I can’t articulate properly.  I can only literally explain that this is how I feel.

I try to approach things with a sense of humour, but this time it seems somewhat inappropriate.  For the past few days, I’ve been reeling reading the news updates about the Syrian blogger hoax.

A few weeks ago, A Syrian blogger named Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omari, aged 25, was kidnapped and arrested by Syrian forces.  Amina was the alleged author behind “A Gay Girl in Damascus,” a blog that chronicled her experience as a young lesbian under an oppresive regime in the Syrian capital.  She wrote about mundane events; she also wrote about Syrian police breaking into her home to arrest her on charges of homosexuality, and how her father supposedly saved her by convincing them to leave.

As time went by, Amina’s blog was quickly picked up by Western media, getting attention from CBS to CNN to the blogging community around the world.  When she was kidnapped and arrested, there was international uproar demanding her freedom.

That uproar saw immediate results, but nobody was prepared for the nature of those results: the entire blog was a hoax.  There was no Amina.  A Gay Girl in Damascus was the creation of a white American man living in Scotland.

Tom McMaster, the man allegedly behind the hoax, never intended for the blog to backfire.  But it sure did, and the truth leaked while he was on vacation in Turkey.  He had used stolen photographs from a Croatian woman’s facebook, and had done research on Syrian politics to convince his readers that Amina was real.

“I regret that alot of people felt that I led them on,” he said in a video interview with CNN.

He went on to say that his initial intention was to draw attention to the political problems in Syria, not to do any harm.

He later acknowledged that he may have inadvertently done more harm than good.   Maybe he should have thought of that before he decided being a WASP-y heterosexual male who can afford a luxury vacation in the Middle East made him such an expert on LGBTQ abroad.

More reprehensible is the pandering obliviousness to his privilege when “Amina” described life in Damascus.  “What a time to be in Syria! What a time to be an Arab! What a time to be alive!” read a quote published by BBC. Oh, do go on.  It reads like some sick modern re-telling of Kipling’s White Man’s Burden.   It was not McMaster’s job—and it certainly was not his right—to play the educated, wealthy beacon of hope for anybody.

Frankly, he strikes me as one of those people that sees the Middle East as a monolith of disorganised countries in turmoil.  Like when it was “trendy” to “Save Darfur,” McMaster must have taken it upon himself to “raise awareness,” as if mere awareness of an issue actually solves anything.  The more updates I followed, the more disgusted I became.  As a woman, I wanted to shake this guy and tell him, “Listen you priviliged son of a gun, you have no right to speak for me.  EVER.  Take a seat and PIPE DOWN!”  Idiot.
What actually upsets me is the harm McMaster’s experiment might have done for Syrian bloggers and dissidents.  When he realized he had bitten off more than he could chew as Amina’s blog garnered attention, he did what many soap opera writers do to conveniently stopper the drama: kill of the main character.  He acknowledged this regret in the aforementioned interview with CNN, but it was too little too late.

“I think it’s only a matter of time before someone in the Syrian regime says ‘See, all our opposition if fake’,” he admitted.  As it happens, bloggers and dissidents in Syria get arrested by the hundreds on a regular basis, and similar events occur in Syria’s neighbouring countries.  Oppressive regimes already have enough excuses to subjugate and harm their opponents.

I have talked about these headlines with friends and these conversations have frequently ended in disappointed sighs and frustrated silence.  Unfortunately, the damage has already been done; it has been revealed that a second similar blog, a lesbian critic of Amina, was also written by a man.

I wish I had a happy ending to offer, or that I was able to come to a hopeful conclusion.  But unfortunately, the only thing we can do is keep our fingers crossed this debacle doesn’t cost any real people their lives.  And that Tom McMaster will be doomed to a lifetime of backpedalling.  If we can take a lesson from this, it should be that bloggers can have an influence on the world—but that influence also comes with a great deal of responsibility.

About Veronica Glab

Veronica Glab (CAS '11) is the Feministka writer for the Quad. "Feministka" means "feminist" in Veronica Glab's native language, Polish. There are few things Veronica loves more than eating pineapple, taking long walks on the beach, and thinking about Rasputin's beard.

View all posts by Veronica Glab →

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