- 26 Jan 17
She is a US citizen. But, if Donald Trump has his way, her name will go into a new kind of black book: the so-called Muslim Register. Hend Amry has been commenting on the shift to right-wing populism in the US and elsewhere via Twitter, under the @libyaliberty handle, earning an impressively large following in the process…
Hend Amry has been called the “Muslim Queen of Twitter.” With over a 100,000 followers, the description is justified. But Amry – a hijab-wearing Libyan-American writer and artist currently living in Qatar, whose Twitter voice is witty, acerbic and intelligent – laughs when I repeat it to her.
“It’s not necessarily true,” she says, with a smile. “But if you say something often enough people start to believe it. I’m still surprised having so many followers and I am absolutely honoured that anyone would want to hear what I have to say about anything.”
Born and raised in the USA to Libyan parents, who fled Gaddafi’s regime, Amry joined Twitter in 2010, during the Arab Spring.
“Like so many people, I joined to follow the news and see what was happening in Libya, as well as in Tunisia and Egypt. My entire family lives in Libya. My grandmother, uncles, cousins — everyone is there. I have very strong connections still, as I am just one generation out.” After the Arab Spring, Amry ignored the warnings of political instability and anti-American sentiment, and visited her family in Libya.
“Like all Libyans, I was very hopeful after the Arab Spring, but I was also very leery of the postwar effort. I was promoting the idea of having the UN in Libya for the transition. I was told by a lot of my Libyan family that that would only complicate things, having foreign boots on the ground. Things went south pretty quickly, but it’s not such as shock that it did, unfortunately. There was a moment when things could have gone the other way, but they didn’t. That’s a terrible loss for Libya.”
THE DAMAGE IS DONE
Was she shocked by Donald Trump’s ascendency to the Presidency in the USA?
“I’m disappointed, I’m upset, but I’m not shocked,” she sighs. “We’ve been moving in this direction for a few decades at least. Donald Trump didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. This populist, right-wing political wave has been coming for a while. When it starts affecting a lot of people, that’s when people take notice.”
What are her prime fears in the current political climate?
“I have domestic concerns. I also have international concerns. I see what’s happening now as the result of years and years of choices. We are not undoing the bad choices of the last twenty years. I’m concerned about the rise in populist leaders who will only exacerbate the problems in regions like the Middle East. They are not going to address the problems of despotism or inequality — all of the things that are drivers of instability and chaos. There was a Human Rights Watch report that came out the other day that said much the same thing — that populism is going to lead to large-scale human rights abuses. That’s my greatest concern.” Recently, Trump appointees such as Jeff Sessions and Rex Tillerson were being questioned by the respective Senate committees. Was she impressed with the process?
“I don’t think we can depend on the high level of government to undo or roll back the move to the right. I don’t have a lot of hope that Congress is going to ameliorate the choices made by Trump.”
Whether or not Trump goes ahead with his so-called ‘Muslim Register’, that he proposed it – and was elected – hints at a McCarthy-style campaign of persecution. It must be deeply upsetting.
“The fact that it is on the table indicates that there has been a fundamental change in American values,” Hend says. “They’ve moved the red line. The damage is done. There would be more damage with an actual registry, but the damage is already done.”
ABUSE AND BIGOTRY ISN’T NEW
While, in theory, social media is a democratising tool, which allows anyone with access to WiFi to broadcast their views, these platforms have also been used to spread hate and abuse. The guilty parties include both Islamic State, who use social media to connect with potential recruits; and the alt-right, and loosely affiliated groups such as Gamergate, in the US and elsewhere, who hurl threats at a variety of easy and often vulnerable targets. Is there any way that you can address that?
“That’s the question everybody is grappling with,” Hend says. “The way information is exchanged is having a dramatic effect on so many areas of life. But I can’t imagine a quick fix. What gives me hope is to think that social media is not a microcosm of the real world — that there are a lot of silent, good people who are not engaged in social media and are not therefore letting the demagoguery of a tiny minority influence politicians and changes. But I am hoping there will be a larger grassroots movement to get people mobilised and involved.”
Amry’s tweets, which mix political and social commentary with humour, have won her many fans — but also an equal number of detractors.
Trolls, she says, are simply a part of social media.
“The same thing that allows me to have a large account also gives someone with hateful and bigoted views the opportunity to have a large account. It’s a free-for-all and in a way it’s very democratic,” she reflects.
“You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have this platform and close it off to people you disagree with. To a certain extent, I accept the trolls and the abuse as part of the landscape. For me, being female and a Muslim and wearing the scarf, facing that kind of abuse and bigotry isn’t new — it didn’t start on Twitter. In some ways that’s given me an advantage — you develop strategies to deal with that.”
Amry suggests that abusive behaviour on social media can perhaps be used to enlighten others.
“I try to create a teaching opportunity,” she explains, “to say, ‘These are the views out there’. People say these are anomalies, but they’re not. These are the points of view that have been shaping public policy, foreign relations, social structures. These terrible views are a part of our society and so by mocking them, sharing them or trying to get people to think about them, I hope to turn it into a good thing.”
Criticism too, is par for the course, she says.
“I get criticised by absolutely everyone!” Hend laughs. “I get criticised by Libyans, saying that I am an ex-pat. I get criticised by Americans telling me to go home! I think it is all baloney. The truth is that human rights are everyone’s business.”