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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