Friday, September 2, 2016

The Case against Anonymity


A recently published article by Emile Hokayem, “Assad or we burn the country”: misreading sectarianism and the regime in Syria, provides a thorough and professional rebuttal of the arguments on current realities in Syria presented by Cyrus Mahboubian (penname) in two previous and controversial essays: Washington’s Sunni myth and the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and Washington’s Sunni myth and the Middle East undone.

Since I believe that Emile has done a great job rebutting Mahboubian’s articles I shall not delve into their content. Rather, I am writing here in connection to the negative reaction by many in the Washingtonian policy circles to the fact that someone has been allowed to make ludicrously sweeping claims while benefiting from the cover of anonymity, one that is usually reserved for people facing serious threat. Yet, there was nothing in the articles that could have foreseeably posed any danger to the life of the author even if he were living and working in Syria and Iraq at this stage, as he claims. Indeed, if the rumors circulating in policy circles about the real identity of the author are true, then, we are dealing here with someone whose previous writings on Syria and the region have been previously challenged if not discredited due to a variety of factual errors that have been committed. This makes the decision to publish these articles all the more problematic, if not unethical.

For while considerations regarding the personal safety of the author are important, they have limits, and have to be balanced vis-à-vis other pertinent issues that are no less important. 

For instance, when I write I use my real name, and that means that elements in my background, including my ethnicity, religion, professional affiliations, education level, socioeconomic class, family, current activities and my previous writings all come into play for those trying to make sense of my writings. While this trend might seem negative or unfair as it considers things not related to the ideas I am presenting, in reality it does offer a certain context for one’s views. One way or another, we are all influenced by our backgrounds, and our activities must express who we are at some level. The problem is that these influences and expressions are not easy to discern and analyze, and people often make a hash job of it. But there is little I can do about that other than deal with its consequences through follow-up pieces and perhaps even factor it into the writing process itself by anticipating and responding to some of the objections.

People writing under pennames not only manage to avoid that kind of scrutiny, they actually gain a certain moral edge, because the impression often given is that they are risking their freedom if not their very lives in order to tell us the “truth.”

Just consider how Mahboubian was introduced by the editors of War on the Rocks Blog: 

“a Westerner with extensive on-the-ground experience in Syria and Iraq explains how the West’s understanding of sectarian identity in the Middle East is fatally flawed. He reveals new information on these civil wars and their participants.”

The editor further notes:

“I know the author’s identity and while his arguments are surely controversial, I am confident in his sourcing and subject matter expertise. I have decided to allow him to write under a pen name because he can reasonably fear for his safety and professional employment.”

The quality of the information provided by the author has been evaluated by Emile Hokayem in his excellent rebuttal and found severely wanting. But the harm is already done in a sense; the byline has clearly elevated the moral and academic stature of the author and seems to have endorsed his main claim, namely that the “West’s understanding of sectarian identity in the Middle East is fatally flawed.” After all, the author was not introduced as “a Western” who claims something, but as “a Westerner” who “explains” something.

So, in general, anonymity gives an unfair moral edge, but, in this particular case, it gave an unfair academic one as well.

However, if there is a moral justification for allowing some people to publish their political analyses under a penname on certain specific occasions, or for a short period of time, allowing people to spend years doing this raises a lot of questions about the ethical nature of the practice.

For over a decade now, my friend Joshua Landis has allowed for a person writing under the penname of Ehsani2 to publish dozens of articles analyzing the Syrian situation on his famous blog, Syria Comment. The only thing that we are told about the man is that he lives in Syria, or spends much time in Syria, and that he is a dissident of some sort. However, and for all those years of writing under the protection of his penname, Ehsani2 has never published a single critique of the Assad regime that would justify identifying him as a dissident or an oppositionist. In fact, if anything, and long before the revolution, most would have considered him as a regime apologist, an impression that was only strengthened by his writings after the Revolution.

I, personally, cannot find a reason for this continued reliance on anonymity, and I do find that it does give an unfair advantage to the person involved. People who are critical of the regime have been risking their freedom and their lives since long before the Revolution, and many have paid dear prices for that. Not only that, but as public figures, they were judged every step of the way by all sorts of people who followed their careers, their activities and their writings. Everything about them is continuously and unforgivingly analyzed and dissected. While they might on occasions get praised, considering the nature of our times and of revolutionary politics in general, they are far more often subject to vilification, personal attacks and trolling. I speak from a personal experience in this regard, albeit, by now, it pales in comparison to what others have had to go through over the last five years since the Revolution began.

Yes, some pro-Revolution Syrian activists benefitted from the practice of using a penname in the early days and months of the Revolution. These activists had ample reasons to fear for their safety, as they were definitely targeted by the Assad regime. However, these activists never sought to hide their identity from foreign correspondents, representatives of international human rights organizations, and even ambassadors and foreign officials. They wanted to shield themselves from the regime, not from the world. They were not trying to avoid scrutiny and accountability, but torture and death. Still, after the first year of the Revolution, almost all these activists ended up revealing their real identity to the public having chosen to move to rebel-controlled areas, or having been forced to leave the country all together.

Meanwhile, there is Ehsani2, a regime apologist, writing under a pseudonym, enjoying all the benefits that come with anonymity. Yes, he often gets criticized and trolled online for his pro-regime views, but people have no idea whom they are criticizing, and their criticism often falls flat because they are unable to put any of his writings within any practical context. No one knows anything about him or his background, or what he does for a living, what his political activities are, what connections, past or present, he might have to regime circles, opposition circles or international circles. To boot, we have to take his word that, despite his avowed lack of neutrality he is a” reliable and credible source of info on Syria,” as he writes on his Twitter page account.

Ehsani2 might have revealed some more information about his backgrounds throughout the years, but unless you are a religious follower of his writings and of Syria Comment one is likely to have missed them, I know I did. The fact Joshua Landis has been willing to publish Ehsani2 anonymously for all this time adds Joshua’s own credibility to his, but it also means that we have to blindly trust Joshua’s judgment on this matter for all these years. In the realm of politics and public affairs, that, frankly, is too much to ask.

I, think, it’s about time for Ehsani2 to come out of his particular closet, face the music and dance, or try to, like the rest of us. Or, at the very least, it’s about time for Joshua to stop promoting his writings. As for the editors of War on the Rocks, they should be more wary in the future when making such decisions. The controversy generated by Mahboubian might have gotten them more clicks, but it came at the expense of their credibility, at least momentarily.