Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Free Amina - Whoever She Is

Earlier today, I took a quick break from researching to watch a few how-they-do-it magic videos on Youtube. Whether it be sleight-of-hand or grand illusions, magicians manipulate our assumptions about reality to create a false belief about what has occurred. We know that we are making assumptions, yet knowing exactly which assumptions are false is often difficult and is the key to a magician's success. And despite this blatant manipulation, we still enjoy magic. Experiencing an illusion, even though we know it's just an illusion, taps into the deepest aspects of what it means to be human. It sparks our imagination and spurs our sense of hope, even as we rationally know that levers and smokescreens are the true agents at work.

In that respect, magic and policy analysis are similar. We know that what appears to be happening is never quite the reality. A meeting between two heads of state is never just a friendly gesture. Yet we relish the regalia of state dinners. We know the odds of total democratic revolution in the Middle East are slim. Yet seeing the courage and passion of protesters in Tahrir Square, or Pearl Square, or in the streets of Tunis inspires Western analysts, filling us with hope and sparking our imagination about a democratic and free Middle East. Hope and imagination are not shortcomings, in fact they are advantages which allow us to recommend responsible and compassionate policy. Yet we should never forget that we, like all analysts, are hardwired to make assumptions. And knowing which assumptions are correct and which are not can at times be impossible.

Two days ago, a post appeared on this blog about a woman named Amina Abdullah, a widely read blogger based in Damascus who was in hiding from the regime. When she was kidnapped, #freeAmina was a trending topic on Twitter, and the story was covered by all major sources in the Western and international press.

Enter Andy Carvin, Senior Strategist at NPR. In what may easily become the fact-check of the year, Mr. Carvin did some research yesterday into Ms. Abdullah, digging into her presence online and communicating with people throughout the Middle East. The more he searched, the more hazy details became. He couldn't find anyone who had spoken to her in person, and the pictures posted alongside her story turn out to be of a British woman named Jelena Lecic who had no idea who Amina was.

Mr. Carvin continues to believe Amina exists and obviously is apprehensive that by calling her identity into question it may put her in more physical danger. Amina may easily be a pseudonym for a very real Syrian dissident who, for her own safety, kept a low profile. She may be in very real danger at the moment.

But the incident also illustrates the assumptions analysts made about Amina, and the assumptions we continue to make about the Arab uprising.

The strong voice of a young lesbian female Arab is one we were ready to hear. And in a region filled to the brim with spin and propaganda, the voice of an independent blogger is the last one analysts would think to call into question. In many ways, making this assumption was the effect of a bounded rationality, in which our human brains took cognitive shortcuts to triage the fire hose of information coming at us. In the chaos of the dynamic changes in Syria, what mattered was harvesting signals coming out of the region. If Amina's story didn't seem out of place amongst the 20 other sources analysts were using, questioning it would only have impeded our understanding of the brutal reality on the ground.

So our assumption at the time may not have been a bad one. However, Amina teaches us that while making assumptions may be unavoidable, being consciously aware of those assumptions is something we should not avoid. It was because Andy Carvin was aware of his own assumptions that he was able to blow this entire story open. And it is by better understanding our own assumptions that we become analysts who see reality for the complicated and messy business it is.

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