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05.18.10

Bikini Diplomacy

By making a Muslim woman their Miss USA, the judges may have done more to further American cultural diplomacy than all our government efforts combined. So instead of calling her win exploitation or affirmative action, why not rejoice in it?

Alexis de Tocqueville can hardly have had the likes of Rima Fakih in mind when he wrote, on the nature of assimilation in American society: “ In the midst of the continual movement which agitates a democratic community, the tie which unites one generation to another is relaxed or broken; every man readily loses the trace of the ideas of his forefathers or takes no care about them.

Ms. Fakih, as readers of this website must know, was crowned Miss USA earlier this week, making her the first Shiite on whom Donald Trump has bestowed his tiara. My first reaction was to wonder whether she was a Mossad agent in deep disguise. My second was to applaud her for the gusto of her assimilation, and for the extent to which this Muslim woman, clearly not an assiduous practitioner of her faith, had embraced American ways.

This integration by bikini could go a long way toward demonstrating to Americans that Muslims are not a weirdly, frighteningly monolithic group, and thus begin to break down prejudice.

And yet, missing this last point altogether, some clod-headed killjoys on the right have attacked the pageant’s organizers for “an odd form of affirmative action”. How could these critics have failed to respond more imaginatively to Ms. Fakih’s beguiling example? Her American integration has been wrought by a thoroughgoing subversion of her own forefathers’ cultural norms; and I can think of few sets of cultural norms that are as mutually exclusive as those of Middle America, on the one hand, and the Shiite faith, on the other.

The Daily Beast Video: 7 Best Moments From Miss Teen USASome in America will, no doubt, find it hard to confer on Ms. Fakih their total approval. After all, beauty contests are not widely regarded as templates of enlightenment. Is female “exploitation,” these critics will ask, the right common ground to seek between Muslims and non-Muslims? Is the way to peace and harmony a low common denominator?

The cultural dismissal of beauty pageants, however, is far from widespread in America. Many Americans, in fact, take them quite seriously; or, put another way, a great number of Americans do not react to pageants with a reflexive anathema. So to have a Shiite Muslim girl from Dearborn, Michigan—born in a Lebanese village to parents who immigrated to the U.S. when she was 7—take part in a Miss USA contest is a cultural phenomenon of considerable interest and value. If you choose to come and live in the U.S., it is broadly desirable that you live in an American way. And that, for some, includes taking beauty contests seriously. After all, these parades of temptation are precisely the sort of exercise that hard-line Islamist zealots hate most about Western civilization, and which they deploy as cautionary ammunition in the repression of their own women: Were it not for the burqa, you would all be naked harlots.

(While on the theme of degeneracy: It must be irksome for the mullahs and their adherents to have it publicly shown that a Shiite beauty in a bikini leads not instantly to damnation and wrathful interventions by the gods. Ms. Fakih posed, strutted, and primped—all without vast, irrevocable social consequences that needed controlling by firm and pious hands. There was no pandemic of rampant immodesty, no outbreak of irrepressible male lust. )

So for Ms. Fakih, her bikini is, arguably, more an instrument of liberation than of exploitation. Indeed, the assumption we make in America is that her entry into a beauty contest, with all its concomitant baring of body and limb, was her own autonomous choice. She carved her own path. And let us remember that in many cases, Muslim women living among us have to gain equality with their own menfolk before they can be integrated in America. So their assimilation, when it happens, is an impressive personal feat.

Since 9/11, Muslim spokesmen have been trying to say, with varying degrees of success, that “not all Muslims are alike”—the point being that Americans should not draw generalized conclusions about all Muslims based on a handful of terrorists in our midst. The spokesmen are correct in seeing this as the key to anti-Muslim feeling—a disconcerted people (here, the American public) will always think that the group it fears is “all the same.” Until now, many Americans have resisted this message. But Miss USA can be an effective way to show that, indeed, not all Muslims are alike. Some, in fact, wear bikinis in cheesy beauty contests. This example, this integration by bikini, could go a long way toward demonstrating to Americans that Muslims are not a weirdly, frighteningly monolithic group, and thus begin to break down prejudice.

The Miss USA judges may have done more to further American cultural diplomacy than all of the efforts of USAID, the State Department, and Karen Hughes combined—this, after all, is the highest honor American popular culture can bestow. As if on cue, an aunt of the beauty queen, interviewed by AFP in her village in Lebanon, said: “She is an honor to us, an honor to all of southern Lebanon.” Why would anyone wish to argue with that? Why would anyone, in fact, not wish to rejoice in this most American Miss?

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Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)