On Monday, May 17, 2010 at the 2010 Miss USA pageant, Rima Fakih, a 24-year-old Lebanese-American immigrant from Michigan, was awarded the crown. Not surprisingly, this has caused a major backlash among the “Keep America White” set. First they attempted to smear her by uncovering pictures of her — fully clothed — in a radio show’s pole dancing contest. They also dug up footage of her appearing briefly in an independent movie with a somewhat provocative title (“Throbbing Justice”), in which, again, she remained fully clothed. In fact, the most provocative pictures to be found of her are from the lingerie contest at the Miss USA pageant. Unfortunately for her detractors, none of these “revelations” have done much damage.
Naturally, the major controversy brewing around her has to do with Fakih’s Arab Muslim heritage, which she actually has barely discussed, and she in fact stated that her family celebrates both Muslim and Christian holidays. But what ideologue cares about facts? Conservative radio talk show host Debbie Schlussel actually charged that Fakih’s bid to win the pageant was financed by Hezbollah terrorists. Right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin charged that the contest was fixed, because Fakih made a number of perceived mistakes, such as almost tripping over her gown and, in the Q&A portion of the competition, referring to birth control pills as a “controlled substance”. “Fox and Friends” host Gretchen Carlson suggested that runner up Morgan Elizabeth Woolard (aka Miss Oklahoma) was robbed of the crown due to her answer to a question posed during the Q&A section on the Arizona immigration law. Woolard stated that she supported the law.
That these kind of accusations are being leveled at a Miss USA pageant winner, of all people, highlights the extreme bigotry towards Arabs and Muslims that has been allowed to fester unchecked since September 11, 2001. Any Arab or Muslim who does something “suspicious” like, say, wearing a trench coat, is immediately assumed to be a terrorist or associated with terrorists. Some members of Congress (I’m looking at you, Joe Lieberman) want to enact a law that would strip any American citizen thought to be associated with anyone remotely involved with terrorism of their citizenship. This is a drastic step, and it’s clear which ethnic group would be primarily targeted by the law.
In Edward Said’s Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, he states: “It is only a slight overstatement to say the Muslims and Arabs are essentially covered, discussed, apprehended, either as oil suppliers or as potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab Muslim life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Islamic World.” That was written in 1981, and it still resonates today. Images of Muslims/Arabs in mass media conform to stereotypes — the woman rescued from her oppression by the Muslim religion, the terrorist, the angry academic bordering on terrorist, the oil sheik. Representations of Muslims/Arabs are mostly two-dimensional caricatures. Comedians and television writers decry their inability to show cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, crying censorship and pointing to offensive portrayals of Christians’ Jesus as proof that Western religion is so much more tolerant. To prove that tolerance, instead of mocking another religion’s revered prophet, you could promote positive representation of members of that religion in media.
Immediately dismissing an Arab Muslim Miss USA pageant winner as having ties to terrorism, as if Islamic terrorists are interested in who wins the Miss USA pageant (when they clearly despise any Western artifice) proves Said’s point. Even a beauty queen is a potential terrorist threat. Insinuating that she only won not because of her performance but because of a form of “affirmative action” dismisses Fakih’s participation in the pageant as mere puppetry, since the contest was already decided in her favor the minute she entered it.
In a country where Arab Muslims are so reviled, Fakih’s success in the pageant was somewhat of a milestone. Of course, having an Arab Miss USA doesn’t really help the situation of Muslims or Arabs in the country overall, and the conservative backlash against her win is disheartening. But for a population so marginalized, it does offer an all too brief glimpse of inclusion.