Monday, June 13, 2011

How to Actually Help Syrian Bloggers

A lot of people have expressed their anger/dismay/disappointment over the Amina Arraf hoax. I'll instead focus on the one silver lining. The incident has shown that there's a significant constituency of Americans and Europeans who support freedom of the press - and democracy more generally - in Syria.

Since her faked kidnapping, almost 14,000 people have joined the Free Amina Abdalla Facebook page. Untold others organized and fought for her release in other ways. Even Amina's creator, Tom MacMaster, alleges he had Syria's interests at heart - even if his actions were misguided and reckless. In an interview with The Guardian, he claims he invented Amina to help bring attention to human rights abuses in Syria.

But as a real Syrian LGBT activist, Daniel Nassar explains, "You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know. To bring attention to yourself and blog; you managed to bring the LGBT movement in the Middle East years back. You single-handedly managed to bring unwanted attention from authorities to our cause and you will be responsible for any LGBT activist who might be yet another fallen angel during these critical time."

While there’s a clear desire to help, it’s not always so clear whether that help is wanted or beneficial. It’s a problem we face not just in Syria. For example, consider those who advocate for crippling sanctions on Iran for the sake of Iranians despite the fact Iranian democrats argue against such a measure. So for those who are serious about helping activists in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, here are a few rules to follow:

1. Listen and Learn. You will never know as much about the Middle East as those who live there, even if you study it as a profession like me. At the same time, you cannot effectively help the cause without a proficiency in the issues. Couch your support with both unending curiosity and humility.

2. Amplify existing voices. MacMaster arrogantly claims in his ‘apology’ that he has “created an important voice for issues [he feels] strongly about.”This implies that important voices for freedom did not exist already. That is false. Admittedly, many of those voices speak and write in Arabic, but not all of them. Be extra wary of those who only have an English audience, like Amina did.

3. Don’t impose your voice. This is their fight, not yours. What may sound smart to you may be anathema to them. This applies to all three levels of tactics, strategies and goals. There’s nothing wrong per se with weighing in on these issues. In fact, as an outside observer, you can offer sometimes much-needed perspective to those caught up in the struggle. But remember that once do, you are now fighting your own battle, not just theirs.

4. Do more than click. While retweeting and liking Facebook groups is nice, ultimately what matters is whether those clicks translate into change on the ground. Consider where you may hold a comparative advantage and where your resources as a Westerner can best compliment those in the region. This usually means engaging in domestic politics to build support for a change in foreign policy, not joining street protests in Damascus.

5. Support institutions, not just people. While there are clear emotional reasons why we latch on to the plight of individuals, it is important to support change on an institutional level as well. Instead of fixating on one case, you can avoid the question of authenticity entirely by supporting press freedom more generally. Syria would be much better off if everyone who liked Amina Arraf’s Facebook page also donated a dollar to Reporters Without Borders.

6. Doing nothing is better than doing harm. We all feel an understandable desire to help those in need. But sometimes, that desire is best left alone. These past few months Arabs have asserted their agency in a remarkable way. Our role is to support and augment that agency. That first means getting out of the way and second carefully considering how to contribute. Sometimes our help is essential. Other times it is irrelevant. Occasionally it’s downright counterproductive. Doing a little effectively is better than doing a lot ineffectively.

I am sure the Amina case has taught other lessons beyond the six listed above. If you can think of any others, let me know!

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