By RAY HANANIA
As I always do around this time of year, I pushed aside the Arab-Israeli conflict for a moment to contemplate the more serious conflict between secular Muslims and Christian Arabs and the growing religious extremism in the Middle East.
There are 22 Arab countries, yet only two had the courage (or pride in their women) to field entrants in this year's Miss Universe Pageant, which was held in the Bahamas, where string bikinis replace car bombs and women are truly free.
The only two Arab countries that entered contestants, again, were Egypt and Lebanon.
Now I know Egypt and its president, Hosni Mubarak, get a lot of flack for the alleged oppression of its citizens: The Coptic Christians are screaming; the Muslim Brotherhood is screaming; the religious fanatics are screaming; and Egyptian ex-patriots are screaming.
I wonder if Egyptians are protesting, or they just like to scream? Anyway, this was the 58th Miss Universe Contest and Miss Venezuela Stefanía Fernández was declared the most beautiful woman in the universe.
I have issues with that. The universe is a big place and who are we to define beauty based on our human criteria? What about creatures from other planets? Well, we can deal with that when they come here, occupy our lands and try to kick us off the planet.
I HAPPEN to think Arab women are the most beautiful in the world. And I think that beauty is something we should brag about, not suppress, hide or run from in fear and shame.
I mean, as an Arab, I have to ask this question: Why is it okay to threaten women who make the choice to showcase their bodies in the Arab world and not okay to challenge the oppressed women who wrap themselves in a burka and niqab like sacks of potatoes while their husbands and male family members run around unshaven in dirty Nikes and other "Western" T-shirts?
Why is it that an Arab woman has the "right" to make the "choice" to wear a burka and face veil and erase her physical identity in public, but that same Arab woman does not have the right to wear a bikini? I think the bikini is the symbol of true freedom and the burka is the sign of modern-day oppression of Arab women.
It's one of the hypocrisies that plagues the Arab world, brought on by the religious fanatics - the lowest common denominator in the Middle East. And instead of standing up to it, secular Muslims and Christian Arabs - let's just call them "Arabs" - are doing nothing to stop this growing oppression.
Tamar Goregian - Iraqi Armenian - Winner of 2006 Miss Iraqi Pageant
ON APRIL 9, 2006, Tamar Goregian, 23, a Christian woman from Iraq, which remains occupied by American forces, withdrew from the Miss Universe Pageant after Islamic extremists called her "the queen of infidels" and threatened to kill her if she participated. The 2006 pageant was held at the Shrine Temple in Los Angeles.
The two runners-up in the Miss Iraq Beauty Pageant, who were Muslim, declined to take Miss Goregian's place in light of the death threats. The fourth place runner-up, Silva Shahakian, 23, also a Christian, was left to take the title, but apparently she, too, declined as she was not among the 86 pageant beauties who were introduced during the 2006 show's broadcast.
The religious thought police in the Arab world argue that a woman showing off her body is disgraceful. Blowing yourself up at a crowded bus stop is not disgraceful, though.
They also assert that the "rights of women" are guaranteed in writing in some Arab countries.
When you have to put something in writing, it usually means it is a problem; otherwise why have it written in a constitution? You have to ask yourself, when a religious fanatic says his wife must wear a burka to protect her "purity," who is he protecting her from? Strangers? Or his own selfish ego, pride and arrogance.
The truth is that in human beings, the fear that sin will be committed usually comes from the person's own heart. Humans fear what they know they would do. Are we forcing women to wear the veil to protect them from others? Or are we protecting them from ourselves? That's why many men in the Arab world would kill their daughters based not on the fact but on the rumor of sexual indiscretion, because the Arab men fear the damage to their own pride, not the "damage" to "their" women. Honor killings remain a serious problem in the Arab world and it's only getting worse.
THE ISSUE of the Miss Universe Pageant may sound trivial to some, but in truth, it is the cornerstone of the problem that plagues the Arab world and continues to threaten its freedom.
With the exception of violence, a society achieves true freedom when it tolerates the intolerable, mainly in speech.
When you cannot tolerate an individual's right to live his/her life as s/he wishes, that is called tyranny. Tyranny is the cancer that destroys all societies, and will destroy the Arab world.
The writer is a columnist, author and Chicago radio talk show host. He can be reached at www.RadioChicagoland.com