Apart from being an excellent excuse to boost web traffic with pictures of bikini-clad women (cf. The Huffington Post), you may not have seen Lebanese journalist Hanin Ghaddar’s very interesting article last week in Foreign Policy comparing American and Lebanese reactions to the Rima Fakih story.
Among less-hysterical commentators in the United States, the victory of an Arab-American in the contest has produced a very, well, American debate. Fakih’s detractors have leveled accusations of affirmative action. Others have cast the new Miss USA as a lesson in the value of assimilation and a poster girl for religious and ethnic diversity.
Ghaddar also examines the response in his home country of Lebanon. Here, the reaction to Fakih’s coronation was “pure ebullience” — at least among the beauty queen’s family:
“All these accusations about her relationship to Hezbollah are nonsense,” Fakih’s 80-year-old uncle, Ahmad Said, told me when I visited him at his family’s home in Souk el-Gharb, the Christian village in Mount Lebanon where Fakih spent the first seven years of her life before moving with her family to the United States. He was holding a copy of the local newspaper, which carried an article describing the American allegations of Fakih’s radical roots. “Everyone in the family, not only Rima, celebrates both Christian and Muslim holidays,” he continued.
Fakih’s extended family is not exactly the Islamist terrorist cell of the right-wing pundits’ imaginations: For one thing, their house is distinguished from the neighbors’ by a big U.S. flag hung from its balcony, surrounded by ribbons and flowers. In the entrance, a Quran and a Bible are placed next to each other on a stand; “There are many mixed marriages in the family, so you cannot really call us a Muslim family,” Fakih’s 62-year-old aunt, Afifa Fakih — the only woman in the household wearing a veil — explained. “We love America,” she added. “Without the USA, Rima wouldn’t have fulfilled her dreams. She made us all proud, and for that, we thank the Americans.”
Lebanon is a favorite case study of political scientists for its consociational form of government and highly pluralistic society, featuring Hezbollah supporters, communists, Shiites, Sunnis and Christians in an uneasy coexistence. “Melting pot” is probably not as appropriate a metaphor as “powder keg” at first glance. But Ghaddar’s portrait is surprisingly serene. One female customer at a store he visits says that women can “represent us with their veils” or “in their swimming suits,” because after all “God created beauty and God loves beauty.” Another man, a self-described communist, says that Fakih made him “proud of his country.”
Even Hezbollah could not muster much of a denunciation:
[Hezbollah’s] official statements on Fakih have been relatively mild. “The criteria through which we evaluate women are different from those of the West,” Hassan Fadlallah, one of the party’s members in parliament, said during a TV interview on Tuesday.
The only paragraph in Ghaddar’s piece that suggests significant discord is this one:
Ali Najdi, a 27-year-old schoolteacher who I met near Ahmad’s shop, saw some problems with Fakih’s new prominence. “The head of the municipality told her family that they will hang a big banner with Rima’s photo at the entrance of the village,” he said. “But many people, namely those who are affiliated with Hezbollah and Amal movement, won’t be comfortable having her photo as Miss USA next to the big paintings of Khomeini and Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah that have welcomed visitors at the entrance of the village for years.”
The image of Miss USA flanked by bearded Islamist radicals made me think of a classic Foreign Policy article by Ronald Inglehart and Harvard’s Pippa Norris on the “True Clash of Civilizations,” which proposed this interesting revision to Samuel Huntington’s thesis: “The cultural fault line that divides the West and the Muslim world is not about democracy, but sex.”
If you’re an acolyte of Khomeini or Nasrallah, how do you deal with a problem like Rima Fakih? It will be interesting to see what kind of reaction the Miss USA banner provokes in her native village if and when it actually goes up.