“Gay Girl in Damascus,” a popular blogger, turns out to be a beefy, bearded grad student recently of Stone Mountain, Georgia. Isn’t that just like the Internet?
The readership of A Gay Girl in Damascus had exploded in the wake of the current unrest in Syria. Exploiting Western appetites for unfiltered, on-the-ground information, the blogger posted elaborate tales putting his heroine alter-ego in the midst of the action. In one posting Amina Abdallah Arraf and her father found themselves in a late-night confrontation with state security forces. More dramatically, a cousin, who also turns out to be the American blogger, posted that Amina had been kidnapped: “We do not know who took her so we do not know who to ask to get her back,” the blog announced. “It is possible that they are forcibly deporting her.” This abduction unleashed a global campaign to “Free Amina Arraf.”
Earlier this week, Tom MacMaster, an American studying at Edinburgh University in Scotland, confessed that he had concocted Amina Abdallah Arraf. He invented the fictional blogger as both an exercise in creative writing and out of frustration that his postings on Middle Eastern affairs were routinely dismissed because, he believed, his name betrayed a Western identity. “I saw lots of incredibly ignorant and stupid positions repeated on the Middle East,” MacMaster claimed in his apology. “I noticed that when I, a person with a distinctly Anglo name, made comments on the Middle East, the facts I might present were ignored and I found myself accused of hating America, Jews, etc. I wondered idly whether the same ideas presented by someone with a distinctly Arab and female identity would have the same reaction.”
Yet, the reader of the Gay Girl in Damascus blog comes across a fair share of “incredibly ignorant and stupid positions.” The tolerant social attitudes described seemed more at home in Western Massachusetts than the Middle East. “I have seen lots and lots of talk of how Islam and homosexuality, Islam and democracy, Islam and feminism, Islam and human rights, Islam and so forth and so on are incompatible,” the fictional Amina blogged. “But that never comes from actual Muslims, neither directly nor by implication.” The Gay Girl in Damascus claimed that “as perhaps one of the better known openly gay women in Syria” she had experienced an “entirely supportive” surrounding religious community. So tolerant is the faith, boasted Amina Arraf, that a local imam had years earlier “urged me to reconsider my decision not to go to a Christian seminary.”
The exposure of the hoax has left A Gay Girl in Damascus’s dejected followers asking how MacMaster could have so cruelly deceived them. A more pertinent but less asked question is: How could so many people have allowed themselves to be deceived?
The portrait Tom MacMaster painted of the Middle East was the picture Western liberals wanted to see. It was not a picture of the Middle East. For alienated Westerners decrying American imperialism and Israeli oppression, there is something discomfiting in the peoples you stand in solidarity with not standing in solidarity with your issues. MacMaster made neat this ideological messiness. He told Western liberals that Middle Eastern Muslims believed in gay rights, feminism, religious toleration, free speech, and so many other sentiments in which they profess adherence.
Like the lies told by conniving salesmen or cheating paramours, the web of deceit weaved by ideological flatters finds many gullible flies blissfully stuck in the trap. Man is a more emotional than a rational animal. We believe because we want to believe.
There is a long tradition of grand deception by ideological flatterers. John Reed authored Ten Days That Shook the World as a paid employee of Soviet Russia’s Bureau of International Revolutionary Propaganda. This didn’t stop Warren Beatty from making a fawning biopic or a New York University panel of judges from ruling the book one of the best works of journalism in the twentieth century. Rigoberta Menchu won a Nobel Peace Prize on the basis of I, Rigoberta Menchu. Yet, when scholar David Stoll revealed massive literary fraud—including finding alive Menchu’s brother who had starved to death in I, Rigoberta Menchu and revealing that another brother who had been burned alive in the autobiography had not perished in so grisly a fashion—no serious consideration was given to rescinding the prize.
“I never expected this level of attention,” MacMaster confesses. “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on this blog are true and not misleading as to the situation on the ground. I do not believe that I have harmed anyone—I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.” Clearly, MacMaster feels strongly. But what does he know of “the situation on the ground”?
Tom MacMaster understands the public demand for the comforting narrative over the inconvenient truth. Instead of performing pop psychology on the demented MacMaster, the defrauded who ate up every far-flung word of a fictional character might be better off examining themselves.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of numerous books, including Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America, forthcoming this fall from ISI Books. He writes a Monday column for Human Events and blogs at www.flynnfiles.com.