SRIFA, Lebanon — Newly-crowned Miss USA Rima Fakih is the pride of her native village, with residents saying the Lebanese-American not only brought honour to southern Lebanon but also offered a different image of Shiite Muslims often stereotyped as radicals.
"She is an honour to us, a honour to all of southern Lebanon," her paternal aunt Afifa Fakih Said told AFP in Srifa, the beauty queen's hometown.
Residents of the southern village watched 24-year-old Rima compete in three categories -- swimsuit, evening gown and interview -- before winning the Miss USA title on Sunday.
Proudly showing off her niece's photograph on the front page of local newspapers, her aunt Afifa offered baklava pastries to wellwishers pouring in to her home.
A supersized framed photograph of Rima, whose family is Shiite Muslim, earlier winning the Miss Michigan crown hangs in Afifa's living room.
"We are so often described as terrorists and killers, but we Shiites love life and beauty -- and mainly the beauty of the soul, which is what is so special about Rima," said the veiled 62-year-old, who speaks English and French fluently.
"In this family, we are open to all religions," she said. "We have no political affiliation to anyone."
Srifa falls in an area largely controlled by Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which is blacklisted as a terrorist group by Washington.
In an interview with Lebanese television on Tuesday morning, Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah was asked his opinion on the new Miss USA.
"The criteria through which we evaluate women are different from those of the west," he said.
Rima Fakih, who may represent the United States in the Miss Universe pageant later this year, emigrated from Srifa to the United States when she was seven years old.
She attended a Catholic school in New York until 2003, when her family moved to Michigan.
She went on to earn a college degree in economics from the University of Michigan and was a resident of Dearborn, which is home to a large Arab-American community, prior to her crowning as Miss USA.
Fakih proudly told pageant organisers that her family celebrates both Muslim and Christian holidays.
Her sister Rana, who lives in Lebanon with her husband and children, told AFP the Fakih family was proud of their dual heritage.
"Rima called me from the podium after her win in tears of happiness to tell me she was elected Miss USA," said the 35-year-old. "Our father, who was there with her, kept saying she was an honour for south Lebanon.
"We are both Lebanese and American. In the United States no one asks us if we are Sunni or Shiite Muslims, we are all under the US law," she added.
"In our home, there is none of the fanaticism that exists in some Lebanese households."
Despite her dark, cascading waves and toned body, the new Miss USA has come under fire by right-wing bloggers, who have dubbed her a "terrorist in a bikini."
"Don?t let her lack of a headscarf and her donning a bikini in public fool you. Miss Michigan USA, Rimah (sic) Fakih is a Muslim activist and propagandist extraordinaire," wrote conservative political commentator Debbie Schlussel in her blog.
"It?s a sad day in America but a very predictable one, given the politically correct, Islamo-pandering climate in which we?re mired," wrote Schlussel, who slammed Fakih as a "Hezbollah-supporting Shiite Muslim."
Fakih sparked further controversy on Monday when pictures of her competing in a pole dancing contest surfaced on the Internet, although she apparently did not undress in the all-girls competition.
But others are rallying in support of the young beauty queen.
"It is sad what we have come to in this country when we can't come together and agree that Rima Fakih is just incredibly hot," tweeted "Degringolade."
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