Presumably the Scotland-based U.S. man who pretended to be a lesbian human rights advocate named Amina Arraf in troubled Syria meant well. “A Gay Girl in Damascus” supposedly was blogging on site reports about the Assad regime’s vicious crack-down on dissent. Her ostensibly courageous coverage supposedly culminated in her abduction, fueling international curiosity, and her exposure as a 40-year-old American named Tom MacMaster.
MacMaster, as the fictional Amina Arraf, created an icon of remarkable politically correct diversity: The make-believe woman had declared of herself: “I am an Arab, I am Syrian, I am a woman, I am queer, I am Muslim, I am binational, I am tall, I am too thin; my sect is Sunni, my clan is Omari, my tribe is Quraysh, my city is Damascus.… I am also a Virginian. I was born on an afternoon in a hospital in sight of where Woodrow Wilson entered the world, where streets are named for country stars.”
Few in charming Staunton, Virginia, likely could have imagined their mountain town could produce not only the President to end all wars, but also a Syrian “Gay Girl” who would embody political and sexual liberation. Whatever MacMaster’s intent, his charade likely undermined genuine Syrian dissidents, many of whom apparently rely on somewhat anonymous Internet reporting to broadcast Syria’s plight. Interestingly, he is himself originally a Mennonite from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with a history of pro-Palestinian and anti-Iraq War activism.
“I was very involved in issues surrounding the Palestine and Iraq struggles,” MacMaster explained in his public apology over the “Gay Girl” hoax. “Ever since my childhood I had felt connected to the cultures and peoples of the Middle East…. So I invented her. Amina came alive. I could hear her ‘voice.'” He claimed that while the person was fictional, the atmospherics she reported about strife in Syria were real. “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone,” MacMaster concluded.
Flesh and blood Syrian dissidents who are blogging from Damascus, and not comfy Edinburgh, might disagree that no harm was done. Educated at Emory University in Arabic studies, MacMaster co-directed the Atlanta Palestine Solidarity Network, according to the Washington Post. Reputedly he was motivated by the death of a friend in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Post also reported that MacMaster joined in a “student peace mission” attempting to prevent the U.S. led military ouster of Saddam Hussein.
Previously, according to the Post, a youthful MacMaster distributed origami doves at the Pentagon to denounce the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan. The protest by origami was popular in the 1980s. As a student attending the Virginia United Methodist Annual Conference, I vividly recall origamis passed out to nearly 3,000 clergy and laity in a similar demonstration against the U.S. atomic strikes 40 years before. It was closely related to anger over the Reagan Administration’s military build-up, and the United Methodist bishops’ rejection of nuclear deterrence, which outdid the Catholic bishops, while offering no alternative to Soviet strategic dominance. I overheard one older gentleman, likely a WWII vet, grumble to his wife that the atomic weapon had saved hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of lives. But as polite Methodists, nearly everyone partook of the origamis, although I declined!
In the Post article about MacMaster, his brother, who had also done the origami protest at the Pentagon, explained of his sibling: “He enjoys pushing issues at some level.… There’s a Quaker saying, ‘speaking truth to power.’ He takes that very literally.” This saying is not confined to Quakers, of course. Liberal religious activists often tout it to explain their anger over various U.S. military or police actions. Rarely do they “speak truth to power” in protest against the excesses of the welfare or regulatory state. The son of a Mennonite female pastor, MacMaster is married to a Quaker woman. His wife formerly was an activist with the American Friends Service Committee, a decades-long far-left lobby that has often identified with anti-Western revolutionary movements. Although Quakers and Mennonites of course are pacifists, their concerns about violence are usually confined to the U.S. and other Western powers.
So maybe it’s commendable that MacMaster, of late, was actually concerned about human rights abuses under an anti-Western tyranny like Syria under the Assads. Organized Mennonite and Quaker groups, in contrast with more typical local church and meeting goers, usually identify the U.S. and allies like Israel as the world’s chief villains. Absent exposure of his ruse, perhaps MacMaster would have gone on to invent an imaginary Iranian dissident resisting the mullahs, or maybe even a North Korean surviving under the world’s worst communist despotism. The ultimate stretch for MacMaster could have been an imaginary Israeli struggling for national survival against dictators like Assad, whose brutalities, until recently, never interested most of the world as much as Israeli transgressions.
The original Mennonite and Quaker settlers of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley could hardly have imagined that their legacy eventually would inspire an imaginary Syrian lesbian icon of protest against Arab dictatorship. But they certainly would have appreciated that the Lord works in mysterious ways.