Rima Fakih’s path from Lebanon to Las Vegas, where she was crowned Miss USA on May 16, is not unlike other immigrant success stories, but she stands out because of one notable first: she is very likely the first Miss USA who is Muslim.
At a time when many Americans view Muslims with suspicion and hostility, Fakih, 24, sees herself as a testament to America’s promise as a land of opportunity. While she insists religion does not define her, the erstwhile Miss Michigan also recognizes she can challenge stereotypes of the cloaked and dour Muslim woman.
While some people think Muslims are obsessed with modesty, Fakih strutted down the Miss USA catwalk in a bikini and says she has received nothing but support from Muslims.
Q: What role did religion play in your and your family’s life?
A: We’re more of a spiritual family. Religion really doesn’t define me or my family. My family’s been very liberal, and we appreciate all different kinds of religions.
Q: Could you elaborate on what you mean by spiritual?
A: I consider myself to be blessed. I have a family that is a mix of different religions and different ethnicities. My brother-in-law is Christian, and he (and my sister) baptized their two sons. I have an uncle who converted to Christianity, and he’s a priest now. My family is Muslim. But none of this ever came up in our family. We don’t look at religion as something that defines us, we look at religion as something that we respect, and something that teaches us about ethics.
Q: With all these different influences, did you ever struggle with your identity?
A: No. My father always told it like this: We’re from Lebanon, Lebanon is our mother. But we look at America as our adoptive mother. And we were never confused on any point because my dad was someone who always had stories and lessons. I think that’s also why he sent us to Catholic school, just because he thought Catholic school would help us learn about how to be good, ethical human beings.
Q: What values instilled by your family have served you the best?
A: My father always said, “You don’t know who you are until you know where you came from.” That’s one thing I always remembered. The other thing that they always taught me was respect and reputation. You always respect yourself.
Q: Do you see yourself as an ambassador for Muslims, or an activist who challenges the stereotype of the Muslim woman?
A: I do. I feel like I can be a great representative. America is the land of opportunity, and people can live in America and be who they want to be. Don’t deny your faith. Don’t deny your ethnicity. Don’t stereotype Muslim women, because as you can see with me, or in Lebanon, for example, beauty is appreciated.