It is no exaggeration to state that Rima Fakih’s Miss USA victory is widely perceived as a defining moment in Arab American history. Ululations could be heard from Las Vegas to Dearborn to Lebanon. “We are elated by her success,” stated Sarah Najjar-Wilson, president of the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee. Fakih’s promoter Rami Haddad credited her with breaking stereotypes of Arabs. Amer Zahr, an Arab-American comedian, wrote in an open letter to Fakih “In this age where we are fighting for an identity, trying to get a box on the census form, attempting to withstand the impending theft of hummus, and having to prove our patriotism over and over, you are now a symbol.” Maytha of Kabobfest perceived Fakih’s win as validation of Levantine beauty and a means of limiting racist stereotypes and social stigma towards Arabs. This event was even compared to Barack Obama’s winning the presidency.
The excitement expressed by Arab-Americans conveys the perception of achieving a milestone on the long, treacherous road towards what appears to be Arab America’s grand dream: acceptance into mainstream American society. This is confirmed by Fakih’s own statement: “It would show the world that yes, there are Arabs that are beautiful not only in looks, but also on the inside. There are Arabs that are caring, that are good people, and who love the country they live in. I think it would make the Arab image a more positive one.” As an Arab living in the US, nothing could be further from my mind. In light of the US occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, I believe the main political objective of Arabs living in the west generally and the US specifically ought to be disruption of, and eventually putting a halt to, the war machine that has devastated and exhausted the lives of innocent millions. Arab-Americans are in an ideal position to demand this. They live in the belly of the beast, and they are in no need to be educated on the fundamentals of the realities of war and occupation, at least in comparison to the general American public the majority of which is frequently found unable to find Afghanistan and Iraq on a map. Arab and Muslim-Americans’ perpetual quest for acceptance, pursued with disregard for the responsibility of seriously opposing the wars and occupations, brings to mind Malcolm X’s statement addressing African-American involvement in opposing war on Congolese: “they’re able to take these hired killers, put them in American planes, with American bombs, and drop them on African villages, blowing to bits Black men, Black women, Black children, Black babies, and you Black people sitting over here cool like it doesn’t even involve you. You’re a fool. They’ll do it to them today, and do it to you tomorrow. Because you and I and they are all the same.”
To seek approval and acceptance by American (read: white) society by an Arab or Muslim in America at a time like this is as ludicrous as a Vietnamese seeking acceptance from American society in the 60s and 70s instead of focusing their energies on putting an end to the carpet bombing and use of napalm on fellow Vietnamese. It’s as ridiculous as an Algerian’s seeking acceptance into French society during the zenith of Algeria’s colonization or a Black slave presenting his best appearance to his master during the Transatlantic slave trade. It is even more ridiculous when such validation arrives in the sexist, degrading vehicle of a beauty pageant, which we’re willing to dismiss in return for 15 minutes of fame. Blogger Will Youmans had no qualms with commenting that he was “happy for her even if the pageant is wack and debases women.” Contrary to common understanding among Arab-Americans, an Arab’s winning of a beauty pageant does not challenge stereotypes of Arab women. In fact, it confirms them. Subservience to males from underneath the hijab isn’t the only stereotype regarding Arab women. The image of the bellydancing, exotic harem girl also permeates western imagination of the Arab world. The physical requirements of winning a beauty pageant do not differ significantly. The image of a bikini-wearing Arab is not exactly a radical shift from the characters of Arabian Nights.
In this vein, Rima Fakih’s accomplishment alleviates some of the pressure sensed by Arab-Americans, generally speaking; the responsibility to prove their humanity to the west. I strongly reject this burden. I believe the burden is on the west to prove its humanity to Arabs and Muslims simply because the US, the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” according to Martin Luther King Jr., is occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. I would have understood Arab-Americans’ need to give themselves a human face if Afghanistan and Iraq were occupying the US. To date, the Afghani and Iraqi peoples have not shock and awed Washington, used depleted uranium on the American people, attacked people at weddings, imposed crippling sanctions or destroyed American culture. Neither have there been any recorded sightings of Afghani tanks roaming the streets of Chicago or of Iraqi fighter jets disrupting the peace of San Francisco.
I have heard my Arab and Muslim brethren argue that this is a “strategic” move. That is, if we want to gain political clout and influence US foreign policy, we must first challenge the negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. I see at least two flaws in this argument:
First, humanizing the victim in the perspective of the aggressor is not a prerequisite to liberation. If anything, it’s a stalling technique to postpone venturing outside one’s comfort zone in order to stand up for justice. I am not aware of any successful liberation campaign that suspended its demand for justice pending successful humanization of the victim in the oppressors’ eyes. This “strategy” certainly did not preclude MLK Jr. from condemning his government’s policies towards Vietnam while simultaneously working to end Jim Crow and desegregate the south. In any case, an Arab winning the beauty pageant does not threaten the status quo, as the US does not categorically reject Arabs occupying high-profile and even powerful establishments positions. Need I say more than “John Abizaid”? The US cannot genuinely claim that it respects Rima Fakih while it continues to imprison, torture, rape and bomb our sisters in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not the case that the US may consider respecting its Afghani and Iraqi female hostages after an Arab Muslim wins a beauty pageant. The opposite is more likely true; true respect for an Arab beauty pageant and her entire ethnicity and religion may stand a chance only after Afghanistan and Iraq are fully decolonized.
Second, even if we were to assume there is merit in the strategy of humanizing Arabs and Muslims first as a step towards eventually achieving Arab and Muslim political influence, what greater agent for humanization is there than opposing the inhumane occupations? If we want to give ourselves a human face before the American public, what better way to accomplish that than to express genuine concern for the lives and self-determination of those under brutal military occupation? In the words of the late Rachel Corrie, “I think it is a good idea for us all to drop everything and devote our lives to making this [occupation] stop.”
I can’t blame Arab-Americans for feeling happy about Fakih’s new title despite its glaring problems. A community deserves a break when it endures ethnic profiling at workplaces, schools and airports, harsh immigration policies, hate crimes and overall political marginalization. But the yearning for the elusive carrot of acceptance by a society that overwhelmingly continues to acquiesce, if not support, colonization of two Muslim countries is an exercise in futility.