Monday, July 24, 2006

Miss Universe Pageant, no distraction from Middle East politics

Miss Universe is no distraction from politics and conflict
By Ray Hanania

I thought I would distract myself from the ongoing Israeli terrorism against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and Lebanese in and around Beirut by switching from CNN to the 55th Annual Miss Universe Pageant.

But all I could think of was how deeply the political fighting and fanaticism has burrowed into our lives.

Of the 86 contestants this year, only two were from an Arab country. Egypt and Lebanon, despite the destruction being inflicted on it by Israel, sent a contestant, maybe in a defiant gesture that Israel could destroy their country but they will not be able to destroy their humanity.

A third contestant from a country that some no longer consider “Arab,” withdrew when Islamic extremists threatened to have her killed.

On April 9, Tamar Goregian, 23, a Christian from Iraq, which is occupied by American forces, withdrew after Islamic extremists, calling her “the queen of infidels,” threatened to kill her if she attended the Miss Universe Pageant.

The pageant, held this year at the Shrine Temple in Los Angeles, actually moves from host country to host country each year, although the US has won more of the contests, 7, than any other country.

The two runners-up in the Miss Iraq Beauty Pageant are Muslim and they declined to take Miss Goregian’s place in the face of the death threats. The fourth place runner-up, Silva Shahakian, 23, also a Christian, was left to take the title, but apparently she, too, declined as she was not among the 86 pageant beauties who were introduced Sunday night during the show’s broadcast.

Don’t blame the lack of Iraqi contestants on the United States. The last time an Iraqi woman competed was back in 1972.

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I became angry.

There are 22 Arab countries and only two could come up with pageant entrants this year.

I credit Egypt and Lebanon for standing up to the principle of tolerance. Must everyone live by the lowest common denominators in the Muslim World, extremists who seek to impose their will on everyone else?

While the main attraction of the contest is physical beauty, the winner becomes a world activist for good causes. Last year’s winner, Natalie Glebova, became the champion of the sick. She helped raise awareness of HIV/AIDS education. Other winners have championed the needs of the poor, the homeless and helped strengthen the image of their home countries in the eyes of most of the rest of the world, if not in the 19 Arab countries that have failed to proffer entries.

The contest seems rigged, but that’s besides the point. A panel of judges narrows the field down to 20 finalists for the TV broadcast. Both Egypt and Lebanon were not selected as finalists. That was fine because Israel wasn’t selected either.

In 2002, Israel’s contestant caused a minor uproar when she wore a gown that featured a map of Israel on her dress that merged the occupied Gaza Strip, West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem as parts of that country.

So much for the Israelis who constantly bark that Arabs are biased because they have maps of Palestine that don’t identify Israel. (The Israelis are the world’s greatest hypocrites, as we all know.)

In that contest, Miss Lebanon decided to withdraw rather than appear on stage with Miss Israel, citing the Israeli incursions into Lebanon even after Israel withdrew from its near 20 year long occupation of Southern Lebanon only two years earlier in 2000.

In contrast to Israel, Miss Egypt was very professional. Her gown featured the word “peace” written in Arabic.

So even before the first of the 20 finalists from Sunday’s show were even eliminated, I had switched channels in disgust thinking about all this controversy.

None of the finalists were Arab, so why watch?

Well, the real issue is why does the Arab World permit the fanatics to define who we are?

Who are they to insist that we cannot sing, dance, imbibe modestly and even perform standup comedy?

Who are they to hold back the rest of us by issuing death threats against 23 year old women who are not even of their religious faith, forcing them to withdraw from the contest.
It may be about beauty, but the show is one of the most watched programs in the world. More than 170 countries view the show, maybe because the majority of people in this world prefer to see the basic beauty of womanly innocence on a TV screen rather than the frightening look of some religious fanatic with a full beard issuing death threats and launching entire regions into conflicts they have no right to start.

When it comes to the Miss Universe Pageant, the Arabs and Israelis are tied. Lebanon’s won once in 1971 and Israel won once in 1976.

If the religious fanatics have their way in the Arab World, we won’t even have two contestants in next year’s pageant.

I think that is a shame. And if we want to defeat the extremists, we should stop letting the extremists control our lives.

Next year, every Arab country in the Middle East should have a contestant in the 2007 Miss Universe Pageant.

But that assumes that the extremists won’t have achieved their goals and there will still be a “Middle East” and an “Arab World” left standing.

(Ray Hanania is the former national President of the Palestinian American Congress, a writer and author. He can be reached at


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