For Westerners involved in social justice movements, this is just one thread of a difficult conversation as they attempt to discern their appropriate role as allies to Middle Eastern activists. The accessibility of social media makes it far too easy to participate in activism on a superficial basis, and for allies with academic backgrounds in area studies, international relations or a related field, it can be all too easy to mistake a university education for substantial experience. The combination of these two factors can inadvertently result in a destabilization of the very movements Western allies seek to support.
This misguided intervention is illustrated particularly well by the controversy surrounding Tom MacMaster, author of the blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” MacMaster spent years developing the character of Amina Arraf. Amina purported to be an out Muslim lesbian residing in Damascus, Syria, and a supporter of the opposition to Syria’s current president, Bashar al Assad. Later, Amina’s “cousin” reported that the woman had been arrested by forces loyal to Assad. But her online identity had begun to unravel as journalists in the region proved unable to verify her identity, and on June 12th the Electronic Intifada linked her identity to Palestinian solidarity supporter Tom MacMaster. MacMaster eventually admitted the hoax, and in a phone interview with the Washington Post, MacMaster described his motivation for adopting the persona of a queer Arab woman as a sort of writing exercise, a desire to prove his creative worth by taking on “the challenge of being someone who isn’t me.”
For MacMaster to so wholly portray this character, and to market his fiction to the broadest possible audience, he could not challenge the exoticization of queer women of color. Instead, he had to embrace it, and the freedom available to him as an American male allowed him to popularize his portrayal of the ultimate Other to such an extent that an already marginalized community of Syrian LGBT activists found their voices silenced.
Two of these activists responded to MacMaster’s hoax on Gay Middle East’s blog. Sami Hamwi, the pseudonym of a gay male blogger currently located in Syria, explained the potentially dangerous ramifications of MacMaster’s fiction for GLBT individuals living in a state whose draconian laws regarding human sexuality and the freedom of expression make it illegal to be either a blogger or openly gay. Hamwi directly addresses MacMaster in his post: “What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger, and made us worry about our LGBT activism. Add to that, that it might have caused doubts about the authenticity of our blogs, stories, and us.” Hamwi adds that he personally began to investigate Amina’s alleged disappearance, at great personal risk to his own freedom. That sentiment is echoed by Daniel Nasser, another pseudonymous Syrian blogger: “You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know. To bring attention to yourself and blog; you managed to bring the LGBT movement in the Middle East years back.”
It is not likely that MacMaster intended to inflict such serious damage to the work of Syrian LGBT activists. In fact, his record of concern for the status of human rights in Middle Eastern regimes indicates the opposite intention. But his decision to blog as Amina Arraf reflected the presumption that his academic training could substitute for living the experience of a queer Muslim woman. The presumption that his academic background authorized him to speak as an Arab woman makes MacMaster only the latest in a long intellectual tradition of Western scholars and authors who, in their attempts to define the East for either academic or creative purposes, embrace a mythologized version of the region. It’s a tradition thoroughly criticized by Palestinian scholar Edward Said in his seminal work, Orientalism.
Orientalism rated a mention in MacMaster’s blog, in the final revelatory blog post that announced his hoax to the world. MacMaster defended his lie by justifying it as a project designed to reveal the “pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.” That statement combined with his educational background as a student in Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University and his involvement in the Palestinian solidarity movement make it reasonable to assume that he has at least a passing familiarity with Said’s work.
Said offers several definitions for Orientalism, among them the contention that Orientalism acts as a vehicle for maintaining control over the subject of the East. In his introduction to the original edition, Said wrote that “…Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient—dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it.” (12) By this definition, the Orientalist attitude is one of conquest. It is evident on an institutional level in the neoliberal policies of the United States and other Western powers, particularly so in their history of intervention in Middle Eastern politics. As Amina, MacMaster does not advocate for Western intervention on a state level. The opposite is true, in fact. But by portraying himself as a spokesperson for Syrian reformists, MacMaster intervened on a personal level and his actions threatened to destabilize the movement he supported. Fundamentally, his actions betray the same Orientalist prejudice that motivates the Western governments of which he is so critical.
Tom MacMaster’s elaborate “fiction project” should be viewed as a cautionary tale for Western activists. Yet it should not discourage allies from supporting the work of reformists in the Middle East. It simply requires an awareness of our privilege, the understanding that it is impossible for us to completely discard that privilege in the current world order, and a willingness to realize that an education limited to the classrooms of Western institutions is insufficient to give an accurate picture of life in the Middle East.
Sarah Jones is currently the Communications Associate for Femin Ijtihad, an organization committed to providing academic research and support to Muslim women activists. She has a degree in International Studies from Cedarville University and will enter Goldsmiths, University of London this fall for a graduate degree in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy. She can be reached at email@example.com or at her blog, www.anthonybsusan.wordpress.com.