Things may get hot for Miss USA

To tell you the truth, I don’t think there is much to be gained by GetReligion readers if we dwell on the media frenzy surrounding the photos of Rima Fakih dancing in a 2007 pole-dancing contest sponsored by, a morning show on Channel 955 in Detroit. This update does sound a but ominous, however:

Mojo In The Morning producers have been contacted by representatives of Miss Universe requesting more photographs and information regarding Miss USA Rimah Fakih’s involvement in the “Stripper 101″ contest. When asked if Fakih’s status as Miss USA was in danger, pageant representatives would not answer. Morning show host Mojo says the controversial photographs were taken from our website where they have been posted for three years. …

Then there is the matter of a rather silly video that has turned up, which is drawing commentary about Fakih’s rather modest contribution to its slightly raunchy contents.

No, the more interesting element of this story is, of course, the reluctance of some news organizations to openly identify the beauty queen as a Muslim. Most journalists, it seems, were willing to settle for the old “Arab” equals “Muslim” equation. You can see that tension in the opening section of a typical Associated Press report:

NEW YORK – Donald Trump’s Miss USA pageant sure knows how to make headlines.

Arab-Americans rejoiced Monday over the crowning of raven-haired beauty Rima Fakih, a 24-year-old Lebanese immigrant from Michigan, calling it a victory for diversity in the United States, especially at a time when Arabs suffer from negative stereotypes in this country — and anti-immigrant sentiment is in the news.

Meanwhile, some harsh critics wondered if Trump’s Miss USA organization was trying to send a message, sniping that the victory amounted to “affirmative action,” or implying the first runner-up, Miss Oklahoma USA, suffered unfairly because of an answer she gave supporting Arizona’s new immigration law. All this comes, of course, a year after 2009 runner-up Carrie Prejean and her views on gay marriage dominated the headlines. Suddenly it seemed like the pageant had become a battleground, albeit in bikinis and flesh-baring gowns, for the hot-button political and social issues of the day. …

In any case, Arab-Americans were elated by the victory of Fakih, who was born into a powerful Shiite family in southern Lebanon and whose family said they celebrate both the Muslim and Christian faiths.

A later AP report added additional information about this complex family:

Local officials said the Fakih family is one of the largest in the village that has a population of about 10,000 people and surrounding areas. As is common among Lebanon’s Shiites, Fakih comes from a large, extended clan that includes everything from supporters of the Islamic militant groups Hezbollah and Amal to secular Shiites and even communists.

Meanwhile, other reports simple say that Fakih is from a Shiite Muslim family, although one that appears to have become rather assimilated during its years in America. Rima Fakih attended Catholic schools, for example, but that is not all that uncommon for Muslim children in America or in Europe.

It seems, for me, that the most important fact is in this story is that she is a Muslim from Lebanon, with the emphasis on Lebanon — one of the most complex and confusing cultures in the Middle East. The family, and pageant leaders, may be playing up the vaguely interfaith nature of her family as a way of pouring cool water on any controversy that might flare among Muslims about, well, the swimsuit competition, for starters.

As you would expect, coverage of this story has been deeper at the local level. Thus, consider this long section of a Detroit Free Press story published before her victory. It seems to me that all of the crucial details are here:

As an Arab American, Fakih’s story contains the tensions and hopes of a metro Detroit community that has been in the spotlight during the last decade as it battles stereotypes from without and within. Given the community’s cultural conservatism, some Arab Americans — in particular, Muslims — aren’t keen on seeing their daughters and sisters participate in beauty pageants that feature public displays of the body.

But the virtue of physical beauty in women and men has a long tradition in Arab culture, historians say. And many have enthusiastically supported Fakih, saying she represents the confident face of a new generation of Americans with roots in the Middle East. Several Arab-American and Lebanese organizations in Dearborn have even helped her finance previous pageant competitions in the hope that Fakih will be a positive face for their community. …

The cultural tensions were highlighted this week as the Miss USA pageant released photos of all 50 contestants, including Fakih, in sultry poses on beds wearing lingerie and little else. In her pageant photo, Fakih gazes at the camera, her fishnet stockings held up by a garter belt as her black hair falls across her side.

It would be a revealing photo for anyone. But perhaps even more so for Fakih, given that she’s an Arab-American Muslim from Dearborn.

And who took the controversial photos?

The photographer who shot the provocative images, Fadil Berisha, also happens to be a Muslim and is an immigrant from Albania. He defended the photos, saying that his interpretation of Islam and his culture would allow for such poses.

“The bottom line is, art is art,” Berisha told the Free Press. “As long as it’s done tastefully, it’s fine. We’re not here to be priests or imams.”

Obviously, to state it mildly, many other Muslims would strongly disagree, both in America and abroad.

Stay tuned. You may want to keep your eye on this URL, watching to see if this story receives coverage.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Digital Jedi

    I’m going to go with, no.

  • tmatt

    “No” to what, in particular?

  • Jerry

    Terry, This is one of those stories that has received very different coverage.

    I read one account which identified her as a Muslim along with the note that their family celebrates both Muslim and Christian holidays.

    Of course, some right wing fanatics in the US can only see through their prejudiced eyes as the story made clear:

    Despite her dark, cascading waves and toned body, the new Miss USA has come under fire by right-wing bloggers, who have dubbed her a “terrorist in a bikini.”

    And that too is an important part of the story.

  • tmatt


    Lebanon is a very complex place, as I said, and I have no doubt that in that huge family there are all kinds of ties.

    But, clearly, she will get blasted by traditional Muslims (because of her assimilation) and some anti-Muslims (because they doubt her assimilation, I guess).


  • Mattk

    I think if Miss Oklahoma had none overdone the eye makeup we wouldn’tbe having this conversation.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    So much rejoicing by some in the media that this Miss USA is a wonderful example of diversity to brag to the Moslem world with.

    Wrong! From what I have read — a woman being steamily and sleazily displayed — whether on a pole or a stage — is just another reason for Moslem radicals to hate us and to encourage other devout Moslems to side with the radicals. Whether this angle will show up in the media is questionable …

  • Tim Pilgram

    Why, I repeat, WHY do the contestants do this to themselves.. they know if they win their entire life is going to be combed over with a fine tooth comb!! She had to of know pictures of her dancing on a stripper pole would come through…

    Think she’ll be allowed to keep the crown? I’m not so sure myself!

  • Norman

    As a Detroiter, I am biased. There are no nude pictures here, no pornography, no sex tapes. She participated in a silly radio station promotion once. So what? This is a pretty lame attempt to shame her in my opinion.

    And whatever happened to discretion? Mojo (I don’t know his real name) could have said to himself that one of our own did good and let the moment pass. Instead he put up a photo of her participation in the pole dancing promo while congratulating her for winning the pageant. I don’t think he’s a bad guy. I’ve never listened to him, but I’ve never heard a single bad thing about him. People seem to like him, and jerks get sussed out pretty quickly here. I just think he missed an opportunity. There’s more heat than fire here and this did not have to be publicized.

  • Norman

    In fairness, I’ve just found out that Rima actually won the 95.5 contest, so it was going to come out anyways and the morning staff did have to address it somehow. I do think that issue is a non-story.

    Funny how my first impulse on the identity issue was a feeling of local pride. The confessional difference didn’t register with me so much; she’s “one of us”. Ah, the surprising power of regional solidarity. It will be interesting to see how the press deals with her Muslim identity in the days to come. Early reportage has been tentative, I’d say.

  • Julia

    There are lots of Eastern Rite Catholics in Lebanon. They are called Maronites and say that they have always been in union with the Pope. Her family probably knows some of them and family members may even have gone to Catholic schools in Lebanon. Some may even be married to Maronites.

    The Maronite history in the US is centered in Detroit.

    I’m guessing that the Maronite and Lebanese Muslims in Detroit have the same kind of familiarity.

  • Jon in the Nati

    There are lots of Eastern Rite Catholics in Lebanon

    Not to mention large numbers of Antiochian Orthodox (Chalcedonian) and Syriac Orthodox (non-Chalcedonian) Christians as well.

  • Julia

    I think before the last two world wars, the Maronites were a majority in Lebanon

  • Julia

    I can’t vouch for its correctness, but here’s Wikipedia on the Maronites.

  • Martha

    I note the irony that in the photos of her from the pole-dancing competition, she’s actually wearing more concealing clothing than in the bikini section of the beauty contest.

    I think that constitutes hypocrisy, if they’re talking about “will she lose her crown”?

    But I don’t think you need to be a strict Muslim, or indeed a Muslim at all, to sigh about how the perception is that taking off your clothes in public is somehow improving the image of Muslims.

    Bikini on a beach? No problem. Bikini and high heels before an audience? I’m not so thrilled. But then again, I’m on the heretic-burning* edge of Catholicism, so disregard my repressive opinions.

    (*this is a joke, honest).

  • Mollie

    I was just reading this 1968 interview of Haile Selasse where he says that some Muslims celebrate Christmas — albeit in a manner different from Christians.

    That might indicate that marking Christmas does not necessarily indicate a celebration of Christian and Muslim holidays, per se.