Miss USA 2010: Can the “Un-Islamic” be Good for Muslims?

In the days after Rima Fakih’s crowning as Miss USA 2010, countless articles in the Muslim American blogosphere discussed the significance of this event to the Muslim American community. Within the multiplicity of opinions voiced, one element that received little attention was how these bloggers chose to tackle the issue; that is, the parameters they employed to measure its value, and the terms in which they framed their discussions. The overriding trend seemed to be the preference for a pragmatic and functional perspective over one of explicit religious morality, and a shared sense that the latter was not conducive to capturing the complexities and paradoxes of a first Muslim Miss USA.

Acceptance, representation and integration topped these Muslim bloggers’ concerns. Would Fakih’s highly publicized victory help Muslim Americans gain acceptance among the general American public? Would her image as an “independent” and “nonconformist” Muslim woman break down the typical stereotype of the subservient Muslim female (or at least give us a break from it)? And what did her newly acquired role as America’s ambassador (albeit to beauty pageants worldwide) convey about the position of Muslims in American society today?

On the other hand, these articles and blogs were clearly not interested in discussing how “Islamic” or “un-Islamic” the event was. Even while some writers criticized the reaction of Muslims to the news as misguidedly joyful, or that it had been construed as explicitly significant to Muslims, their discussions were not framed around the “un-Islamicness” of Fakih’s choice to participate in the beauty pageant, her own religious morality or on the sinfulness of beauty pageants in Islam. And yet, the absence of “the Islamic” as the frame of discussion did not mean that these Muslim bloggers perceived beauty pageants as “Islamic,” or that they tried to justify it as such. It appears as though these efforts would have missed the point.

The point that this young Muslim American cyber-discourse seems to suggest was reality as it unravels, here and now. No amount of moral outrage could change the fact that Fakih’s face was a new development in the Muslim American story. More instrumentally, no foregone conclusions about beauty pageants being “un-Islamic” could help gauge the impact of Miss USA 2010 on the Muslim American community today. In pursuit of all these answers and more, bloggers’ questions were not the kind that would lead to one-word yes/no, halal/haram answers. They were complex questions that resulted in even more complexity, nuance and, in various cases, conflict.

For some who partook in these debates, this conflict partially arose from the possibility that the “un-Islamic” could be good for Muslims. We might have not phrased it this way, but our discussions clearly conveyed this possibility. And if so, was this merely incidental or did it signal an incongruity at whose core lay handicapped understandings of progress, or more significantly, of “the Islamic”? The case of Miss USA 2010 provided no easy answer to these questions. On the one hand, religious principles appeared not to match perfectly with interests. Clearly, there was something “un-Islamic” about beauty pageants, but we wondered: could it be that Fakih’s crowning as Miss America might do for the Muslim American community what our pale yellow and green “Islamic” pamphlets cannot? Could this event not be an assimilative moment that would lead to many others, and eventually, to gaining acceptance in America? And yet, could acceptance be gained through Islamically questionable events? What do Muslim Americans have to give to win acceptance and legitimacy in Muslim-minority America?

One may wonder whether these cyber-discussions about Miss USA 2010 are indicative of a wider trend that favors discussing Muslim American issues over interests rather than over “the Islamic.” If so, one may in turn ask whether conclusions about interests formulated without robust engagement with our Islamic tradition may disconnect us from the raison d’être for preserving the Muslim American identity as American and as Muslim. If so, young Muslim American bloggers may want to consider revisiting “the Islamic” as a frame of discussion.

However, after having fully engaged with the imperatives of the Muslim community here and now, how we understand the “Islamic” is bound to change. Coming full circle from “the Islamic” to the practicalities of reality and back to “the Islamic,” perhaps the difficult moral questions of our time will not yield one-word yes/no, haram/halal answers. Perhaps they will do justice to the breadth and depth of our Islamic tradition, and yield an array of complex and nuanced possibilities of which halal/haram are an integral part but not an all-encompassing binary. Perhaps then, principles and interests will not appear as mutually exclusive frames of analysis, but rather as equally constitutive of a new “Islamic” that derives its authenticity from its local context and its legitimacy from its place within the continuum of the Islamic tradition.

Janan Delgado was born and raised in Ecuador, and educated in Beirut, Cairo and New York. Her academic interests center on Islamic legal theories and Medieval Islamic history. She also writes on gender and Muslim minority issues in the modern West, and her articles have been published and cited in Altmuslimah.com, Gender Across Borders, Racialicious, The Guardian UK, The Huffington Post and others

Clearly, there was something “un-Islamic” about beauty pageants, but we wondered: could it be that Fakih’s crowning as Miss America might do for the Muslim American community what our pale yellow and green “Islamic” pamphlets cannot?

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