The Media’s Chickens Come Home to Roost with the Amina Hoax

This was written by B.

Full disclosure: Last month I wrote a piece for MMW about the new ‘blog heroine’, Amina Abdullah. The thrust of my piece was my discomfort at her being promoted by the Western media as such a central figure in the Syrian uprising. However, the planned posting date coinciding with Amina’s kidnapping and the story was spiked on grounds of taste.

Of course, we now know that Amina was now an entirely fictional figure. Opprobrium has been heaped on the perpetrator of the lie, yet I find the media equally culpable.

Firstly, here’s why the media’s positing “Amina” as such a great revolutionary hero was so problematic. While she was a lesbian, she also stated that she was a dual U.S./Syrian national from a moneyed background, making her someone of great class privilege. Making Amina a hero reconfigured an uprising started and largely maintained by the poorest, least privileged members of society to an operation carried out by a hugely privileged, Western-approved figurehead.

Although the internet has proven vital in the ongoing struggle, most Syrians still do not have internet access/ use the internet and what access they do have is state-controlled. Many rely on internet cafes, but as food/oil prices rocket due to the unrest and the streets are seen as unsafe for many due to the government forces, people won’t be able to use them, either. This is not an uprising that was either started by, or is occurring, via the internet.

Likewise, many Syrians, particularly those from poorer areas are not likely to speak English, all of which means it is unlikely that her blog is the rallying point for the uprising as the articles implied. When an article in Jezebel lauded her bravery while simultaneously referring to the slaughter of hundreds and imprisonment of thousands as a “crackdown,” the framing moves from the implausible to the star-seeking and offensive. The Western media deserves criticism for erasing the reality of what is happening in to people Syria to produce a “juicy” story.

And how juicy ‘Amina’ was. For it was clear that to the media, the lesbian and Muslim Amina was a rare and exotic figure indeed, with much of the coverage having a gasping “How rare!” tone. In our media, which is saturated by the male gaze, it surely cannot have gone unnoticed that “Amina” (pictured using Jelena Lecic’s photos) had both feminine beauty and a fondness for talking about her sex life in lascivious detail.

Did such tales of heady lust cloud the media’s ability to fact check? Unfortunately, the blog is now password protected, but several posts gave huge clues that maybe Amina really wasn’t such a safe source. Repressive police state it may be, but plenty of people have visited Syria and so it is astounding that so many were so quick to cite her unquestioningly.

Let’s begin with the post that shot the blog to fame, “My Father, The Hero.” Here, Amina is saved from the clutches of the Mukhabarat by her father’s impassioned pleas and knowledge of the arresting officers’ family trees.  A quick Google will show that Syria is a rather large country of 20 million people, not a little patch of land with a few tribal villages, so her father being able to identify the men in such a manner, when he and they come from completely different parts of the country and were previously unknown to each other, is not particularly believable.

Then there’s the fact of the Mukhabarat being sent away with a few carefully chosen words, which so betrays the actual author’s “Mighty Whitey” mentality. The Mukhabarat are widely feared in Syria, now more than ever, because they can take whoever they like. This story, far from being a tale of heroism, actually distorts the truth occurring in a country where a 13-year-old boy can be tortured to death. However, the author feels that, unlike your average Syrian, he could outsmart them—something insulting enough to insinuate, but even more insulting for the Western media to believe. Those poor Syrians! If only they were a bit more modern and articulate, then they wouldn’t be in such a mess! /sarcasm.

Less famously but more implausibly still, another post contained a confession from her father that the family had been approached when Bashar Al Assad was looking for a future star of Vogue/wife, with Amina as a possible match. Well, she did say she came from a privileged, old Damascene family. However, Amina also said that her uncle had been imprisoned and tortured for being in the Muslim Brotherhood and had since had to flee Syria, something that would surely destroy your niece’s chance of marrying into the Al Assad family.

At this point, it should have been clear that the blog was entering Walter Mitty territory, but the only W in the media’s mind was the whole Western-friendly tag. Note that the writings of the actually real and actually imprisoned blogger Tal Al Mallohi never received this level of scrutiny, because idle Western journalists would have had to translate them from Arabic.

So while Tom McMaster deserves huge criticism, particularly from LGBTQ folks in the Middle East, who discuss the impact the hoax has on them, the Western media should reflect on why they were so eager to swallow this fiction instead of engaging with Syrian facts.

  • Tom MacMaster

    Thanks for this insightful reflection; it’s one of the more insightful and fairer ones I have seen. I’m really glad to see that people noticed the incredible class privilege I gave Amina when she was in Syria. One of the ironies in much of the press coverage has been that her American (and female) side is very much the opposite; working class rural people and her American connections were much inferior socially.

    Of course, her female and working class background has largely been ignored by those professing anger (though one can note that the most vocally ‘hurt’ commentators hated Amina when they thought she was real; i.e., the pro-Israel, anti-democracy sockpuppets of Gay Middle East or other Zionist and/or pro-dictatorship people).

    However, as a point of clarity, the imagined Amina is rather less implausible than you might think. In the blog, it was never stated directly what her social position in Syria was. However, that was also fully imagined and based on reality. The vice president of Syria, Najah al Attar, is the sister of Isam al-Attar, retired and exiled head of the Muslim Brotherhood. Amina’s father is imagined as being their double cousin and the idea of being closely tied to the inner circles of both groups was fascinating when I learned that.

    Someone like that with the looks and age ascribed to Amina _would_ have been on Bashar’s list of prospects.

    Otherwise, great work!

  • http://deadamericandream.blogspot.com Jihad Punk

    “Then there’s the fact of the Mukhabarat being sent away with a few carefully chosen words, which so betrays the actual author’s “Mighty Whitey” mentality. The Mukhabarat are widely feared in Syria, now more than ever, because they can take whoever they like. This story, far from being a tale of heroism, actually distorts the truth occurring in a country where a 13-year-old boy can be tortured to death. However, the author feels that, unlike your average Syrian, he could outsmart them—something insulting enough to insinuate, but even more insulting for the Western media to believe. Those poor Syrians! If only they were a bit more modern and articulate, then they wouldn’t be in such a mess! /sarcasm.”

    Very true!

  • Nadia

    Great job Muslimah Media Watch!

    To Tom MacMaster, go away and stop invading Muslim and Arab women’s space, you creepy conniving would-be colonizer. Step off!

  • Rochelle

    I didn’t think the Mukhabarat thing was so unbelievable and I think you’re really misinterpreting it. The issue is the arbitrariness of secret police and how often they can be swayed by bribes or whatever. I experienced a very similar thing in Iran when my uncle persuaded a basiji to let me and my cousins go home after being caught in ‘inappropriate’ clothing. This is an extremely common, but not at all consistent, phenomenon. The whole ‘outsmarting’ thing is totally missing the point and making huge sweeps in logic.

  • B

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Tom – I was going to refute your point and discuss the obviously differing time frames between Issam Al Attar’s MB career, and that of Amina’s uncle. Then I realised that I can’t be bothered disecting the imaginary Amina’s, imaginary relatives and entering into the implied pissing contest of who knows Syria the best.

    I’ve read pretty much all the online coverage of the Amina hoax and yet, I notice that it is only here, a site aimed at giving a voice to Muslim women, where you have left a comment. I think Nadia’s comment is one you should reflect upon.

    Rochelle. If ‘My Father the Hero’ had climaxed with her father handing over a big fat wad of cash, I’d have no quibbles. But a flowery speech, with a bit of family history? I don’t think so.

  • Sanjuana Gabriela Enriquez Galvan

    Tom MacMaster, you should have just written a novel, like the Kite Runner.

  • Maryam

    I can’t believe that douchebag actually came here and attempted to evaluate Muslim women’s reactions to his disgusting Orientalist fantasy. Great work? Seriously? Like B. actually gives a shit about his opinion?
    He has his head stuck so far up his privileged ass that it would be funny if it wasn’t so infuriating. The crappy romance novel schlock (complete with lesbian sex scenes) that he tried to get published in Amina’s name is floating around the internet and it is vomit inducing. He is the epitome of the entitled, privileged, patronizing American asshole.

  • http://www.winterdream.org Daniel Holzman-Tweed

    Hey, Aminahoaxdude: These Muslim women’s voices should be sufficient to shame you into never speaking or writing again, but just in case it’s not: You are a liar and a fraud, and the harm your lies have done are absurdly large. This is not something you can fix. You therefore have nothing to say. Time to shut up.

  • Sara

    I’m not sure if this is Tom, or Amina as Tom, or Gossip Girl for Tom, but either way, I have the same thing to say:

    You can’t talk about reality when there wasn’t any in the first place. I’m just saying. Have the grace to stop trying to defend this character.

  • Sindri Myr

    Tom MacMaster is my hero. He fooled the Western Media and exposed the naivete inherent in internet activism

    He is the greatest troll I have ever seen. I wish I could troll as good as him. Even his mere presence will troll other people, as the comments here have shown.

  • Miriam

    Got to agree. You need to let it go. The guy was trying to defend himself and be polite and you sound like a bunch of demented harpies. What did he do? He accidentally made the media look foolish and wrote a character well enough for you to think it was real. And got a lot of discussion about real issues started.

    Have the decency to leave the SOB alone and save your doucheyness for yourselves.

  • B

    Sindri – He also hurt a lot of people and caused a lot of panic when his creation was ‘kidnapped’. Real people in Syria endagered themselves looking for ‘Amina’. That’s not really something to wish for, is it?

  • B

    Miriam – Do you know what I don’t need? Someone using sexist + ableist insults to tell me what I can and can’t write.

  • Sara

    Oh Miriam, are you an Amina?

  • Humayra’

    Trolls, ugh… where on earth is Harry Potter when you need him?? :-)

    For those who are interested in reading what some real lesbian Arabs have to say–as opposed to, say, the imaginings of straight white grad students with far too much time on their hands, or their fans–I’d suggest:

    http://www.bekhsoos.com/web/

    This is their response to the whole Amina hoax thing:

    http://www.bekhsoos.com/web/2011/06/amina-a-40-year-old-heterosexual-white-american-man/

    Among other things, they have recently written about the Lebanese Day of Blogging Against Sexual Harassment, in which they post a really disturbing video which really conveys the ways that racism and sexism intertwine:

    http://www.bekhsoos.com/web/2011/06/20-june-lebanese-day-of-blogging-against-sexual-harassment/

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  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    @ Fatemeh:

    1. “Marginalized Person” here – Amina – does not exist. How am I derailing a Marginalized Person’s argument? Who is the MP? B? Average Syrians? I don’t get it.

    2. The issue is whether the author of this post (B) interpreted an (albeit made up) experience reasonably. Ironically, if B did in fact write this post before s/he knew it was fake, s/he was committing the same crime you are accusing me of – saying that Amina’s ‘experience’ was unbelievable according to B’s own knowledge of what the average Syrian experience is or should be.

    3. My issue was not whether ‘manipulating secret police’ was average, common, unbelievable, rare or whatever quantitative character. That is an empirical question that neither B, nor I, can answer without looking at data. My problem was that B made a certain interpretation of that event and by doing so assumed the thoughts of every (Western) reader to Amina’s blog. It was very reductionist, assuming that no other interpretation is possible. ‘This story = dumb Syrians.’ What I was trying to do with my story is to destabilize that interpretation by giving another example – this time a real story – that did not imply ‘Mighty Whitey’ mentality.

  • B

    Rochelle In response to point 2, I think it is not a greatly unfair assumption that it takes more then a bit of special pleading to make the Mukhabarat go away. I stand by my conclusions, but you are of course free to to disagree with them.

  • http://aniranianperspective.wordpress.com Sara

    Rochelle, I think the problem in comparing you experience here is that basijis in Iran are not the equivalent of the Syrian mukhabarat. If you had been a journalist or blogger and ettela’at in Iran and the had specific orders for your arrest because of your writings, I’m definite that no amount or kind of smart-talking, pleading, or even physical resistance or cash could have stopped them from raiding your home and taking you with them.

  • http://aniranianperspective.wordpress.com Sara

    Obviously, I didn’t mean you, personally, God-forbid!

  • Caoimhe Snow

    The “Miriam” commenting here is almost certainly “Miriam Umm Ibni” — a.k.a. Tom MacMaster’s latest fictional Arab sockpuppet creation.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/26/gay-girl-damascus-accused-defending?CMP=twt_gu


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