There has always been a battle over the issue of beauty pageants involving Arabs
and Muslims, representing the clash between modern Westernization and the
growing influence of extremism among the religious. It has even become a
battleground between Arabs and supporters of Israel, especially among those
pro-Israel extremists who turn every Arab positive into a terrorism-related
Female beauty in the West is considered an important factor,
while female beauty in the Islamic world has been considered haram, a sin. The
battle over beauty pageants illustrates how the Arab and Islamic world have
failed to understand issues of public relations, perception, stereotypes and the
power of communications.
The Arab and Islamic worlds put the emphasis in
a debate on the issue of facts, while in the West, public understanding of
Middle East issues is defined not by facts or reality but rather by fears,
perceptions and issues related to familiarity, and also beauty.
Western media, it is not about what you say but how you say it. In the West, you
don’t win the argument, you battle to win the audience. Whoever “wins” the
audience, ends up winning the argument.
It’s one reason why so many in
the West have turned their backs on the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict to
blindly support Israel.
A movie called Exodus sealed the fate of that
argument in 1960 in the United States, defining Israel as the victim and the
Arabs as the forever-sinister terrorist hordes.
Hollywood has churned out
hundreds of movies that distort and twist the facts of Middle East history and
factually misrepresent Arabs as the region’s only terrorists. This year,
Israel-supporter Sacha Baron-Cohen has produced a movie that goes to the jugular
of this debate, using humor and Arab characteristics to present a dictator who
symbolizes everything that is wrong with the Arab World.
Dictator is intended to be funny, it reinforces the hatred that the West has
nurtured against Arabs in this battle over perception.
base much of their understanding on familiarity and comfort. If they feel
familiar and thereby comfortable with you, they are more likely to embrace your
arguments. Human nature is such that you will sympathize more with someone you
know than with someone you don’t.
Beauty pageants are much like books and
movies in that they convey feelings of familiarity to massive audiences in the
West. Millions of people in the West have watched international beauty pageants
and continue to do so.
And even though by itself winning a beauty pageant
will not change Western minds over issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict, they
create a foundation for change that once started is impossible to
Arabs and Muslims have been AWOL over the years in the engagement
of these fundamental principles of public perception and media relations. Arabs
and Muslims have been absent from the Western media, from Hollywood movie
production, from the writing of novels like Exodus and from participating in
beauty pageants. That absence has allowed the negative perceptions of the Arab
and Muslim to be reinforced, especially in the West.
resistance to changing the Arab image in the West, groups and even countries
continue to try.
Lebanon is one of the most Westernized countries in the
Arab World. This year, Lebanon has begun hosting competitions in 35 other
countries to identify the most beautiful Lebanese emigrant, pageants it began in
Last week, Pascal Abi-Samra, a Lebanese American living in Texas,
was crowned the winner of the 2012 American pageant, held in Dearborn, Michigan.
Abi-Samra will compete with pageant winners from 35 other countries August 11 at
Castle Assouf in Dhour Shweir.
American Rima Fakih won the Lebanon
Emigrants Beauty Pageant in Dearborn, Michigan, in 2008 and she went on to be
named Miss USA in 2010. Fakih did not win the Miss Universe Contest, though.
Only one Arab has ever won the Miss Universe Contest, and that was Georgina
Rizk, who won in 1972.
Rizk was present in Dearborn where Abi- Samra was
crowned before a gathering of more than 600 American Arabs organized by Lebanese
American attorney Joumana Kayrouz. Kayrouz, who has conferred with President
Barack Obama, understands the power of public relations and media
Kayrouz is by far the first Arab you will meet when you
enter Dearborn. She has promoted her law firms’ successes on dozens of
billboards that also include her photograph. Conservatives, especially in the
Arab and Muslim worlds, will continue to frown on beauty pageants, arguing that
women should submit to “modesty” and refrain from showing off their natural,
But that same imprisonment of freedom by these radicals
is exactly what has undermined the ability of Arabs and Muslims to argue their
case in the “court of public opinion.”
If we had more beauty pageants and
better communications in books and films and even in our activism, and less
terrorism and violence, Arabs wouldn’t be wondering why the West doesn’t
understand their claims to Palestine or their battles for justice.
writer is an award-winning columnist and Chicago radio talk show host.