When Miss Iraq met Miss Israel: ‘War is a tragedy that has no winners’

These are troubled and tragic times. After many years of peace, war has reared its evil head on the continent of Europe, bringing death, destruction and untold suffering to Ukraine. Is humanity on the threshold of a new era of violence, where international disputes are resolved not by civilised negotiations and respect for international law but by force of arms, regardless of what the human cost may be?

As I write, it is being reported that my home country, Iraq, was hit by a barrage of missiles fired from Iran. It brings to mind the terrible war that was fought between the two countries through most of the 1980s. I was not yet born, but from my parents and others of that generation, I grew up with a constant awareness of what happened during those years and the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost on both sides. Since then, Iraq has experienced further devastating conflicts. I witnessed, and sometimes personally experienced, the suffering and destruction that these caused, and saw at first-hand how often those who bore the brunt were innocent civilians.

From this, I learned from an early age that war is a tragedy that has no winners, regardless of which side comes out on top, and that peace is something precious that we should all be striving to achieve. Too often, however, peace has been elusive because of the hatred and intolerance that remains so sadly prevalent in the way people of different backgrounds and beliefs think about and relate to each other. 

In 2017, I was honoured to represent Iraq at the Miss Universe competition and had the opportunity of meeting fellow contestants from all over the world. One of them was Miss Israel, Adar Gandelsman. Iraq and Israel were officially still in a state of war with one another, but so far as we were concerned, this made no difference, and we became friends. 

I then decided to post a photo of the two of us on social media. It was not a political gesture signalling support for the Israeli government, nor was it aimed in any way to undermine the Palestinian cause. Rather, it was a sincere expression of hope and desire for peace between our two countries. That, however, was not how many other people saw it, both in my homeland and elsewhere in the world.

Before long, I was being called a traitor and receiving death threats and instead of condemning the threats and supporting my right to freedom of expression, the Iraqi government demanded that I remove the post (which I didn’t do) and forced me to denounce Israeli policies. My family was also targeted by this hate campaign, and eventually were forced to leave the country.

From the way my family and I were treated, and by what I have learned since then, I have come to recognise that those calling most loudly for punitive action to be taken against Israel are not pro-peace nor are they even pro-Palestinian, but rather simply anti-Israel, and that so far as the relationship between Arabs and Israelis is concerned, this is deeply rooted in the antisemitic belief systems taught in Muslim countries and which are continually reinforced by biased media.

As a result of my experiences, I was inspired to commit myself to working for peace between Muslims and Jews, Arabs and Israelis, in the Middle East and beyond. To this end, I established the NGO Humanity Forward, and have since had the opportunity of addressing numerous global forums, including the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2019. During that speech I denounced anti-Semitism and criticised Arab countries for failing to condemn Hamas for inciting terror and dismissing Israel as a potential ally because of ingrained antisemitic attitudes. As a result of my speech, I was called a “traitor” and the Iraqi parliament pledged to cancel my nationality and citizenship. In any case, it is not safe for me to return to the land of my birth, and I must now live as a political exile.   

The Miss Universe experience and what happened to me thereafter have shown me that negotiating peace for Israel and Palestine is not a betrayal of the Arab cause but a vital step to end conflict and suffering for both peoples. 

I knew that South Africa was a country whose people had successfully negotiated a transition from white minority rule to multiracial democracy, and that through this had emerged one of history’s greatest icons of peace and reconciliation, Nelson Mandela. It therefore came as a great shock to me to read that Mandla Mandela, a grandson of this inspirational figure, had called on Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane to withdraw from last year’s Miss Universe competition because it was taking place in “apartheid Israel”. This I saw as a sad betrayal of the values and principles that Nelson Mandela had embodied, not to mention a thoroughly sexist attempt to sabotage a young woman’s dreams and aspirations and said as much in a widely publicised social media post. Fortunately, Mswane resisted the politically motivated campaign against her and went on to achieve a prestigious third place in the competition.             

Despite the persistence of ingrained prejudices, the past two years has seen some encouraging developments in the Middle East. Most notable has been the conclusion of the Abraham Accords, whereby four Arab states — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — committed to normalising relations with Israel. It is to be hoped that these breakthroughs will pave the way to a new era of peace, reconciliation and cooperation in the region. Ultimately, it is only through a shared commitment to the values of peace, empathy and mutual respect that war and all the suffering that it entails will be consigned to history and never again be a blight on the human race.

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Sarah Idan
Sarah Idan represented Iraq at the 2017 Miss Universe pageant. She will be in South Africa from 20 March to talk about her peace activism and will be addressing various youth groups.

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