Beirut, Washington, Tel Aviv- As soon as 24-year old Rima Fakih, who is originally from the town of Srifa in Southern Lebanon, descended from the Las Vegas stage as “Miss USA 2010” she began to face criticism from all directions. Some US and Israeli media outlets went so far as to say that a Muslim winning a US beauty pageant confirms that Islam has taken root in the country since Barack Obama won the presidency a year ago.
More than 6,000 people also joined a Facebook group criticizing Rima Fakih being crowned Miss USA 2010, and repeating comments made in the American right-wing media that she and her family have connections to Hezbollah. Self-described conservative commentator Debbie Schlussel who is well-known for her critical position against Arabs and Muslims criticized Fakih on her website, as well as Miss USA organizer Donald Trump saying “Dhimmi Donald Trump simply didn’t have the guts to demand that Fakih denounce the Islamic group.” Schlussel and other US media figures have claimed that members of Fakih’s family in Lebanon are senior members of Hezbollah, and they published names of Hezbollah members who they claim are related to her.
Debbie Schlussel, who frequently writes in the New York Post and the Jerusalem Post, is one of the most prominent figures who opposed Rima Fakih being crowned Miss USA 2010. Schlussel began her campaign against Fakih since she was chosen as Miss Michigan, and Schlussel has made claims that senior US intelligence officials have informed her that Fakih belongs to a southern Lebanese family that is well-known as being affiliated to Hezbollah. Schlussel also claimed that 3 members of her family are senior Hezbollah officials, and that at least 8 members of her family were “Hezbollah terrorists” killed fighting against Israel in past wars. She began one of her articles saying that Rima Fakih’s victory represents “a sad day for America, but a predictable one, given the politically correct, Islamo-pandering climate in which we are mired.”
Other websites showed images of the new Miss USA side by side with pictures of the yellow and green Hezbollah flag. Right-wing commentators also said that Fakih has “strong and dangerous ties with extremists.” However other commentators defended Rima Fakih, and the Politics Daily website published an article entitled “Miss USA, Rima Fakih: A Terrorist in a Bikini?” in which Bonnie Goldstein wrote that “defending herself against claims from bigots that she is connected to terrorist groups should not have to be part of her job description.”
The Israeli reaction was less negative than the US reaction, with Israelis generally receiving the news of Rima Fakih’s victory in a positive manner, and Israeli television presenters praised Fakih’s beauty and intelligence. However some Israeli media outlets also quoted Debbie Schlussel’s articles, and many linked Fakih’s victory with Obama’s election victory, with headlines such as “It is not strange for those who elected Obama President to elect Hezbollah daughter Beauty Queen.”
Rima Fakih being crowned Miss USA 2010 has received a lot of attention in Lebanon and news of this fills the newspapers and airwaves, and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has publicly congratulated her on her victory. As for Hezbollah, it has entered the debate in its own manner, with Hezbollah bloc MP Hassan Fadlallah saying “The criteria through which we evaluate women are different from those of the west.”
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with an Amal Movement official, about the claims that there are ties between Amal movement martyrs and Rima Fakih; he answered “We have martyrs, and they have a beauty queen. Our martyrs are from the Fakih family, and from Srifa, as is the beauty Queen…”
Rima Fakih’s sister, Rana, who is currently working in Srifa in Lebanon, told Asharq Al-Awsat that Miss USA 2010 visits Lebanon every year, and that Rima was last in the country on New Year’s Eve. Rima’s father owns a house in the “Western Market” area of Srifa. Rima Fakih quoted her father during the Miss USA competition as telling her “You don’t know who you are until you know where you come from.”
Rana Fakih also told Asharq Al-Awsat “we grew up in a non-religious home, we celebrate all Christian and Islamic ceremonies and holidays, and this is what distinguishes our family.”
As for whether her family, or Rima in particular, supports Hezbollah, she said “we were brought up to be patriotic but we are as far away as can be from politics, and today we refuse to talk about this issue, because we refuse to allow politics to spoil what Rima has achieved, as politics has spoiled Lebanon and the lives of the Lebanese.”
The Fakih family was busy in Srifa yesterday receiving well-wishers and media figures wanting to report the story. Rima Fakih’s aunt, Afifah Fakih Saed, aged 62, while providing guests with baklava and coffee said “Rima has made us proud, she had made all of southern Lebanon proud.”
Rima Fakhi’s aunt Afifa, who wears the hijab, said that she did not see any contradiction in her niece appearing in a bikini at a beauty pageant in a country that many people in Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon consider to be an enemy, due to its support of Israel. She said “Westerners describe us Shiites, as terrorists and killers. However in reality we love life and love and beauty.”
Asharq Al-Awsat also spoke with Rima Fakih’s brother Rabih, who speaks Arabic fluently with a southern Lebanese accent. Asked about the relationship between the Fakih family and Hezbollah, he answered that “this is a sensitive issue, and we cannot talk about it. We must first talk to the organizers of the Miss Universe contest.”
Rima Fakih said that she will focus upon raising awareness of breast and cervical cancer, and defending women’s rights, during her reign as Miss USA. The Fakih family is also hopeful that Rima Fakih will soon become Miss Universe.