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Arab-Americans react with delight to Lebanese-American Miss USA

By Tom Watkins, CNN
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Arab-American crowned Miss USA
  • 24-year-old Lebanese-American Rima Fakih was crowned Miss USA on Sunday
  • "For once, we're talking about beauty and not terror," said Osama Siblani
  • Siblani is publisher of The Arab-American News and knows Fakih family
  • "This sends a signal that we're part and parcel of this great country," said Siblani
  • Michigan
  • Donald Trump

Rima Fakih will be a guest on the "Joy Behar Show" at 9 p.m. Wednesday.

(CNN) -- Arab-Americans expressed delight Monday, a day after 24-year-old Lebanese-American Rima Fakih was crowned Miss USA.

"For once, we're talking about beauty and not terror," said Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab-American News, in Dearborn, Michigan, who knows Fakih and her family.

He and about 150 other Arab-Americans watched the pageant unfold on a 100-inch television screen at La Pita Restaurant in Dearborn, which was packed with her friends.

The place erupted in applause when she took the crown, he said.

"This sends a signal that we're part and parcel of this great country ... this is a part of being American. The American dream is still alive and kicking. Nobody can tell us that a Muslim cannot make it. Yes, we can make it."

"We couldn't hear ourselves," said Mohamad Dbouk, general manager of the restaurant. "Everybody was screaming."

Dancing continued until 2 a.m., said Siblani, who text-messaged Fakih after her victory. "She was very excited."

He said Fakih and her family describe themselves as Muslim. Asked if conservative Muslims might be offended by the pictures of the young woman wearing a bikini, he said, "Only stupid ones. It's like all religions: They have conservative, they have liberal, and they have in the middle."

He added, "If you're asking those conservatives, yes, they'll tell you that it's forbidden. But I'm a Muslim, and if you ask me would my sister wear a bikini or a swimsuit, I'd say yes, of course."

A Lebanese friend downplayed the issue. Though her name is Muslim, "Rima was raised in a family that's moderate, and they practiced both religions," including Christianity, said Rami Haddad, who said he helped with Fakih's publicity campaign in Michigan.

"She's American first, and I don't think religion has to play any role in this."

He also downplayed the impact of the pictures, including those showing a scantily clad Fakih dancing on a pole. "I don't think they are anything bad," he said.

A spokeswoman for Miss USA said pageant officials are not certain that Fakih is the first Arab-American to win the title, since such records are not kept, but she said she thought that was the case.

Either way, Samar Boulos, 23, was proud of Fakih's victory. "I would really hope that she would raise the Lebanese name up high," said the Beirut native who teaches Arabic at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. "Instead of always showing the terrorism part of it, maybe she could show the good side of it, the beauty."

Similar sentiments surged across international borders: "9 years after 9/11. America has a president of Muslim origin and a Muslim Miss America," tweeted Khalid Alkhalifa, the foreign minister of Bahrain.

But it was not all positive. Octavia Nasr, CNN's senior editor of Middle East affairs, said criticism was emerging on some websites. "It's a mixed bag," she said.

Arabs are quick to adopt someone who becomes successful, even if their country of origin played no role in their success, she said.

"Arabs usually flee their land to find opportunities elsewhere. Until they make it, their countries of origin do nothing for them," she said.

Nasr said others took issue with the judges' decision, pointing to one blog entry. "Anyone who says she ain't pretty is lying, but I'm not sure she's all that," it said. "She is a very typical Lebanese beauty, nothing too out of the ordinary, but I may be wrong."

Fakih's victory came as no surprise to Linda Bement, who had just turned 18 when she won the title of Miss USA in 1960.

"I picked her out," said Bement, who watched the program from Salt Lake City, Utah, where she lived then and lives now. "She just looked like she was going to be the winner."

Bement said that though the bathing suits have gotten smaller and the promotional pictures more risque, little else appears to have changed in the half-century since she took home her pearl-encrusted tiara.

"The girls are still pretty," said Bement, who had to return the tiara and went on to work as a model for Max Factor and Royal Crown Cola after her pageant victory. "It's a business, it's big money," she said.

After her victory, Bement too was subject to criticism from conservatives -- in this case from Mormons -- though it had little impact.

"I just heard it secondhand that somebody said a Mormon girl shouldn't be showing her body off in a bathing suit," she said. "But I would say overwhelmingly the Mormons were just thrilled that I won. The president of the church at the time invited me to meet his wife, and I, of course, met with him.

"There's always a little tiny group of people who are even more conservative than the average bear."