May 23, 2010 http://www.timesonline.co.uk
Tony Allen-Mills in Washington
Rima Fakih is facing right-wing claims that she won her title because of political correctness
SHE isn’t the first American beauty queen to be caught out by racy photographs from her past but Rima Fakih, who was crowned Miss USA last week, is certainly the first to be plunged into a political controversy about radical Islam, affirmative action and her family’s supposed links to the Hezbollah political and paramilitary organisation in Lebanon.
After her success as the first Muslim immigrant to win the Miss USA title, Fakih swiftly shrugged off the mildly salacious pole-dancing pictures that were leaked by someone she had considered a friend.
Less easy to dispel was an outburst of right-wing anger over a beauty pageant result that some believed had more to do with political correctness and commercial calculation than feminine appeal.
“If I had lost, people would have said, oh, it’s because you are a Muslim,” Fakih told The Sunday Times. “It’s funny, because now they are saying instead, oh, it’s because you are a Muslim that you won.”
Fakih, 24, moved to America with her Lebanese parents in 1993. The family settled in Dearborn, Michigan, home to one of the country’s largest Arab-American communities. She said she had wept when she heard that many of the city’s immigrants had taken to Dearborn’s streets to cheer her victory at the televised Las Vegas pageant last Sunday.
It did not take long for hostilities to commence on the internet, where an off-hand comment by one of America’s most prominent critics of radical Islam sparked angry exchanges about the judges’ intentions and whether or not Fakih deserved her crown.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and a former neoconservative adviser to Rudolph Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign, listed several examples of Muslim women who had won western beauty contests, among them Sarah Mendly, who was Miss Nottingham in 2005.
Pipes concluded: “They are all attractive, but this surprising frequency of Muslims winning beauty pageants makes me suspect an odd form of affirmative action.” There was further upheaval when Debbie Schlussel, another right-wing blogger, branded Fakih “Miss Hezbollah” and suggested she was a kind of Trojan horse aimed at improving the image of militant Shi’ites.
On Friday Fakih acknowledged she had been warned that critics “might have an issue with me competing in a beauty pageant”.
She added: “Let’s not forget that Lebanon has its own Miss Lebanon competition which everyone there wants to watch every year. I know that many Lebanese people are proud and happy that I won.”
Lark-Marie Anton, a spokeswoman for the Miss USA competition, dismissed claims that the contest had been rigged for political or publicity purposes. “I don’t believe this has anything to do with affirmative action,” she said.
Abed Ayoub, legal director of the Arab-American anti-discrimination committee, based in Washington DC, denounced the controversy as “disgusting”. He added: “Her religion and race were not an issue during the competition ... she won on beauty, elegance and eloquence.”
Fakih’s sister Rana, who recently moved back to Lebanon, said the family was “very proud that Rima reached this point despite all the stereotyping about Arabs and Lebanese”.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, commentators noted that the fuss made a change from western complaints that some Muslim women wear too many clothes, rather than too few.
“It seems Arab women only make headlines when they are completely covered up or half-naked,” wrote Rym Ghazal, a columnist for The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi. She added: “Trying to link Ms Fakih to Hezbollah just because she happens to be Shi’ite and from southern Lebanon is beside the point. There is an Arabic proverb: ‘Even a one-eyed man will wink at a beautiful woman’.”
Fakih, who has an economics degree from the University of Michigan, will compete in the Miss Universe contest in Las Vegas this summer and said she intends to enter law school once her reign is over.