by Zainab Cheema (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 5, Rajab, 1432)
From February to June, 40-year-old married American student Tom MacMaster published his Gay Girl in Damascus blog with the ambition of “being celebrated as the unlikely voice of Syrian revolution.” Apart from a mild scolding for his duplicity, the media has dismissed the case as a species of oddity variously described as a freak of vanity to the typical fascination nursed by white heterosexual men for lesbianism.
From February to June, 40-year-old married American student Tom MacMaster published his Gay Girl in Damascus blog with the ambition of “being celebrated as the unlikely voice of Syrian revolution.” Apart from a mild scolding for his duplicity, the media has dismissed the case as a species of oddity variously described as a freak of vanity to the typical fascination nursed by white heterosexual men for lesbianism. After a remarkably self-serving mea culpa penned by MacMaster, the blog has been shut down, slated to disappear like the White Rabbit plunging down into Wonderland.
However, the Rabbit ought to be examined before the debris of internet oblivion entirely swallows him up. The timing of the blog’s run, during the cresting and waning of the Arab Spring, is an interesting one, especially considering the US State Department’s tactic to use social media in order to steer the events away from an Islamic outcome and towards a Middle East sporting “beer and bikinis”, as the title of a New York Times article once put it. In the mandate of the Pentagon and its European satellites, the Middle East they desire is a moveable feast of resources and veritable playground of pleasures, and it simply cannot be dispensed with.
Gay Girl profiles such sleeper issues calculated to reroute self-representation away from the Muslim street. MacMaster crafted a half-Syrian, half-American avatar: Amina Arraf, an openly gay Syrian woman who decided to blog as “a way of being fearless.” Lifting the classic feminist formula of the personal equals the political, MacMaster linked Amina’s decision to come out of the closet with the political protests against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “I believe that if I can be ‘out’ in so many ways, others can take my example and join the movement,” he wrote in a post. Gay Girl in Damascus aimed to provide political commentary on Muslim politics — Amina described her family as well-connected with parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been anxiously monitored by the US and Israel since the Egyptian uprising.
An MA student at the University of Exeter, MacMaster’s blog played up its persuasiveness by displaying knowledge of the region’s complex political geography, and a willingness to make the necessary anti-imperial gestures. In the “My Father, the Hero” post that first vaulted A Gay Girl in blogosphere celebrity, MacMaster manufactures an incident where state security forces come to question Amina and are driven off by her indignant father. “She is not the one you should fear; you should be heaping praises on her and on people like her,” supposedly declares the father to the security forces. “They are the ones saying alawi, sunni, arabi, kurdi, duruzi, christian, everyone is the same and will be equal in the new Syria: [t]hey are the ones fighting the wahhabi most seriously.”
MacMaster’s wife, Britta Froelicher, is a student of Syrian political and economic affairs at the University of Andrews, and she undoubtedly had a close connection with the Amina project. Some photos of Syria on the Gay Girl blog were traced to her Picassa account, and MacMaster admitted that “[s]he is extremely knowledgeable and obviously a great consultant for such a project” even as he contradicted himself by insisting he “was the sole author.”
Through Arraf, Macmaster advocated the embrace of a gay lifestyle that was entirely compatible with Islam. “I consider myself a believer and a Muslim: I pray five times a day, fast at Ramadan and even covered for a decade,” MacMaster wrote. “I believe God made me as I am and I refuse to believe God makes mistakes.” At the same time, “her posts vividly describe falling for other women, finding a Damascene hair salon full of gay women and having a frank conversation with her father about her sexuality,” as described by The Guardian. “For my family it is a preferable outcome than a promiscuous heterosexual daughter,” Macmaster joked at one point.
Arraf’s blog won glowing praise from Middle Eastern gay activists like Sami Hamwi, editor of the online website GayMiddleEast.com, and media outlets like Time Magazine, which blazoned its tributary article with the title, “Lesbian Blogger becomes Syrian Hero.” After MacMaster was “outed” by online journalists like The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah, MacMaster defended his choice to use a lesbian persona by saying that he was motivated “to develop my writing conversation skills ... I liked the challenge.”
Of course, while MacMaster denies sexual titillation plays any factor in the decision, he was unable to adequately explain why he carried on a romantic email correspondence with a Canadian woman called Sandra Bagaria who believed herself to be involved with Amina. And if Britta Froelicher also “consulted” on the emails, Bagaria might be even more discomfited by learning that she was involved in a psychological three-some.
Even as MacMaster’s mea culpa frames the blog as an exclusively personal exercise, there is really no need to separate individualistic ego-stroking and erotic gratification from the broader political project of assisting the state-sponsored counter-revolution to defang the Middle Eastern revolutions. From the Iranian election onwards (June 2009), when Hillary Clinton urged Green Revolution supporters to tweet on the State Department feed, the United States has worked to covertly transform social media from a platform of collective organization that can be inconveniently used to topple a Mubarak or Ben Ali, into a vast optical eye that will monitor, stoke, and disorder the disenfranchised publics of the Muslim East.
An exquisite example is the Obama’s administration’s efforts to develop “shadow internet” and mobile phone systems that will operate even after the state decides to shut down the network, in order to easily mid-wife regime-change in governments resistant to US policies. “There is a historic opportunity to effect positive change, change America supports,” wrote Hillary Clinton in an email on the subject. The initiatives include furtive cell phone networks in North Korea, $50 million cell phone towers erected on US military bases in Afghanistan that the Pentagon hopes will resist Taliban sabotage, and a $2 million “Internet in a suitcase” project. In short, the edgy, avant-garde voice for social change is to be colonized through James Bond-esque technological gimmicks.
Of course, the how-to for hijacking governments, political parties, and social movements does not simply involve hardware. There is also a soft-porn content to counter-revolution — the attractive White Rabbit is revealed to be an emissary of the militaristic Queen of Hearts who can only punctuate her interactions with “off with their heads!” Laying aside their duplicities, contradictions, and secrecies, the question of whether or not MacMaster and Froelicher were on an intelligence payroll is beside the point. What is clear is that they eminently fit within a swirling atmosphere of political desperation that is struggling to wrestle the aspirations of the Muslim world to the ground.
MacMaster’s Gay Girl in Damascus is about mastery — there is a certain desire to have the manufactured homosexual identity become the masthead for anti-government protest in Syria, where US-led insurrection is mimicking and blurring genuine demonstrations for political freedom from the ground. In pixilated stage-rooms, militant secularism at odds with the deeply feared Islamic politics is yet another fault-line to be massaged, along with race, tribe, class, and ethnicity, in order to detonate the population into demographic splinters. Gay Girl preened the liberal ethics of self-determination in the face of a patriarchal state, but is revealed to be the poster-guy for a US patriarchal war machine gone amok. It’s like General Patton in drag.
Hamwi bitterly criticized MacMaster for fogging live efforts on the ground within the vortex of Syrian politics. “I say shame on you!!!” he wrote. “There are bloggers in Syria who are trying as hard as they can to report news and stories from the country.” The feminist critique applies here, as well. Even as corporate and government bidders can randomly raise the profiles of certain websites, irrespective of its value to the public, Gay Girl’s “independent voice” masks the experiences of Iraqi women refugees in Syria forced to become burlesque dancers to entertain Gulf sheikhs holidaying for dirt-cheap gratification. While the fictional Amina Arraf can become a celebrity, widows and orphans contending with the war brought to their doorsteps yet again, remain nameless and story-less. So much for the democratizing power of the internet.
Counter-revolution works by mimicking revolution in order to eventually suffocate it. Since the Middle Eastern conflagrations, US cowboy policies have been painstakingly hidden behind support for social media activism and personal expression. The psychedelic Wonderland of the worldwide web is sufficiently grafted to the military industrial complex that an artificial, alien voice can come to eclipse flesh and blood identities struggling for public expression. Calls for a Facebook or Twitter revolution in the Muslim world are an aporia, especially considering who the shareholders and board members of these multi-billion dollar companies are. In short, to channel Gil Scott-Heron’s famous anthem — don’t expect the revolution to be televised.