A blogger's flight of fancy puts all of Syria's activists at risk

An irresponsible blogger impersonating a Syrian activist has put real people at risk. The example not only shows the harm that the internet enables, but the bravery of those who oppose the regime in the Damascus in their own names.

There are explanations why a blogger called "Gay Girl in Damascus", writing about politics and sexuality at a time of serious unrest in Syria, would use photographs of someone else, a fake name and details that don't add up. Almost the least likely, however, is that "she" would turn out to be the creation of a middle-age American student living in Scotland. From a computer terminal, he has inflicted serious damage on the protest movement.

After a web post reporting that a blogger, Amina al Omari, had been picked up by Syrian security agents unleashed a torrent of questions from within Syria and around the world, a married 40-year old American student named Tom MacMaster admitted he had fabricated the entire blog.

"I do not believe that I have harmed anyone," Mr MacMaster said, "I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about." Astonishingly, he cannot seem to understand what the problem is. There are real human rights abuses happening to real people in Syria, not characters for his fiction.

Foreign activists get to go home. They get to walk out of custody, into embassies, on to planes, and back to their families. Mr MacMaster's wife, after the confession of his deceit, said they were on holiday and "just really wanted to have a nice time and not deal with this craziness at the moment".

Would that activists in Syria could avoid scrutiny so easily. Activists from every community are rounded up by the police and the army; many people cannot get a break from their jailers; and thousands trapped in Jisr Al Shughour who face a full military invasion. These experiences are not fiction; they are daily life for many.

For those of us who write about these issues, who visit countries at war, who argue for change in nations where we do not live - it is essential that we are careful. The people we are writing about are real people, who can be harmed, who can be put under enormous pressure, whose families can be reached, who can hear the midnight knock at the door.

Even if Mr MacMaster thought he was helping, he was in fact exposing the very people he purportedly championed to grave danger. Syrians - many anonymous to spare themselves and their families serious harm, not merely the reputational harm Mr MacMaster is suffering - looked for the fictional Amina to try and help her. This was real work that could have cost them dear. And yet they did it and Mr MacMaster, who must at least know that much about the country and its activists, allowed them to get on with it, allowed them to expose themselves to danger.

What is worse is the arrogance of a man who felt he was able to appropriate the thoughts and feelings of a woman from a different culture and a different background. Reading through "her" blog, it is amazing how much time and effort he spent impersonating a woman, thinking through what might be going through her mind. In a way, had he been doing this as an exercise in fiction writing, the deceit would have been acceptable because, of course, there would have been no deceit. It is because he was trying to make a political point, trying to speak on behalf of people who already have a voice, that the deceptiveness is hard to stomach.

There are many, many Syrian bloggers who write carefully and lucidly about life in Syria - if he genuinely wanted to "illuminate them for a western audience", as he has claimed, he could have drawn attention to their work and supported their efforts. He could have written and spoken of them openly, under his own name, knowing that he would never face the sanctions that they might.

He simply appropriated their point of view. But behind the words are real people who have been detained, abused and worse by the Syrian security services. His actions make it harder for all of them.

Syrian state security is notorious for arresting and jailing people without charge. Since the uprisings in Syria began earlier this year, these arrests have increased, and only after their arrests do we learn their real names.

What of Amjad Baiazy, bundled off to jail as he was about to board a flight home to Britain? What of Abd al Rahman and Wael Hammada, two brothers detained incommunicado for more than a month? What of the dozens and hundreds and thousands of others?

Merely to look through a list of detainees, published by the NGO Syrian Human Right Information Link, is to be astonished at the number of those held without given cause. Hundreds upon hundreds of names, all with families who wonder where they are, all with friends who fear they might be next.

Nestled among them is one Amina al Omari, a fictional creation recently "arrested". But on the same day, a man called Ayham Naji Hamed really was arrested in Salamiyeh, as well as a retired teacher, Mohammad Sahaf Hamoud. Who are these people? What are their stories? And will one fictional creation mean the others are forgotten?

This is the real damage the outing of an American student has caused. By deceiving so many who were ostensibly on the side of his creation, he has handed a gift to the Syrian propaganda machine, who can now claim that real people equally don't exist.

Amina al Omari will soon be forgotten, her story one more in the shadowy internet age. But life for the real dissidents of Damascus - girls and boys, sons and daughters - goes on, as they live out days and months and years in the twilight of a Syrian dungeon, far from the reach of the law, far from the glare of the media. We must not forget them.



Published: June 14, 2011 04:00 AM


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