US man comes clean on 'Gay Girl in Damascus' blog hoax
A US man based in Scotland has unmasked himself as the author of the "Gay Girl in Damascus" blog, sparking fears Monday that his hoax could harm real-life opponents of the Syrian regime's crackdown.
Tom MacMaster, a bearded 40-year-old married Edinburgh University masters student, apologised on Sunday and confessed that he was "Amina Abdallah Arraf", supposedly a Syrian lesbian.
The Arraf character rose to fame with her reports on the movement against President Bashar Al-Assad, posting as "an out Syrian lesbian's thoughts on life, the universe and so on".
Then last Tuesday someone claiming to be her cousin wrote on the website that Arraf had been snatched off the street by three armed men and bundled into a car bearing a pro-government window sticker.
The report sparked a wave of alarm among her online followers. Supporters even set up a "Free Amina Abdallah" group on the social networking site Facebook, attracting nearly 15,000 followers.
MacMaster finally came clean in a posting on the blog Sunday, after doubts began to emerge as to whether Arraf was for real. He admitted that he was the sole author of the posts.
"I never expected this level of attention," MacMaster wrote in an "Apology to readers" which he datelined from Istanbul, Turkey, where he and his wife were reportedly on holiday.
"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."
MacMaster added: "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.
"I only hope that people pay as much attention to the people of the Middle East and their struggles in this year of revolutions.
"The events there are being shaped by the people living them on a daily basis. I have only tried to illuminate them for a western audience.
"This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism."
The Guardian newspaper said that in recent days, bloggers had uncovered evidence that pointed towards MacMaster and his wife Britta Froelicher.
It said she had confirmed MacMaster's admission in an email to the newspaper.
MacMaster is a Middle East activist, while his wife is studying at Scotland's St Andrews University for a doctorate in Syrian economic development.
Major doubts emerged over the authenticity of the blog last week, when photographs that were supposedly of Arraf were revealed to be of a Croatian woman living in London.
Jelena Leckic said the picture was taken on her birthday in Paris last year and had apparently been taken from her Facebook page, adding: "It's absolutely astonishing that somebody's been using the pictures and campaigning with my face on."
In his apology, MacMaster said he had been "deeply touched by the reactions of readers."
But the revelation of the hoax has sparked fury among some former followers of the blog, particularly those who had been campaigning for Arraf's release.
On GayMiddleEast.com, Sami Hamwi, the pseudonym for the Damascus editor of the website, wrote: "To Mr MacMaster, I say shame on you!!!... What you have done has harmed many, put us all in danger."
"This just makes me so angry," said one comment on the Facebook group set up to press for her release.
"The situation in Syria is too dire for this sort of gameplaying!"
"Time and effort was taken away from other vitally important news stories happening in Syria," another contributor protested.
© 2011 AFP