Former Miss Iraq challenges Mandla Mandela on conflict
Former Miss Iraq, Sarah Idan, an Arab Muslim global peace activist, has challenged the Israel-bashing grandson of Nelson Mandela to a conversation on the conflict in the Middle East.
Idan is in South Africa to spread a message of peace, respect, and tolerance during Israel Apartheid Week (IAW), traditionally a time of heightened anti-Israel sentiment and intimidation on university campuses throughout the country.
She has invited Mandla Mandela, an outspoken lobbyist, to engage with her on the conflict.
In an Instagram post, she said, “While I’m still in South Africa, I’d like to invite Mandla Mandela @nkosizwelivelile to have a conversation about human rights and the conflict.”
This isn’t the first time that Idan, 32, the founder of human rights nongovernmental organisation Humanity Forward has mentioned Mandela on social media.
She made headlines last year when she lambasted him for calling on Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, and all African countries to boycott the Miss Universe pageant which was held in Eilat, Israel, in December 2021.
In a fearless Instagram post, she rushed to defend the recently crowned Mswane, and criticised Mandela, saying, “How dare you!”
The courageous former beauty queen is no stranger to controversy and confrontation.
Five years ago, she had the world at her feet with her whole life ahead of her. Widely tipped to become the next Miss Universe, she stole hearts with her extraordinary and unusual life story.
She grew up under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein; was forced to live in exile as a refugee in Syria during the civil war; taught herself English from scratch using the lyrics of American singer Christina Aguilera; joined the United States (US) military on her 18th birthday; and made a life for herself as a musician in America. The stuff of movies. But all of that changed when she posted a selfie in November 2017 with Miss Israel, Adar Gandelsman, captioned, “Peace and Love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel #missuniverse.”
The two met in Las Vegas while preparing for the 2017 Miss Universe pageant.
“I could see she was nervous to greet me. When I asked her why she appeared scared of me, she showed me her Israel sash and I felt so ashamed. I told her I had no problem with where she came from. It’s about humanity,” Idan said.
They struck up a friendship, telling each other about life in their respective countries.
The selfie of the two contestants, intended to convey a message of peace and unity, typically triggered an avalanche of hate in Iraq and other Arab countries which still don’t recognise the Jewish state.
“I was called a Zionist dog, considered the worst insult in the Middle East,” Idan recalled this week. She was blocked on social media by other Arab contestants who had been her friends.
Idan said she was labelled a traitor, told she had committed treason, received multiple death threats including from Hamas, and was forced to flee Iraq with her parents and four siblings within three days of posting the selfie.
“It was a less than an enjoyable time. I was anxious, I had panic attacks, and it affected my ability to compete,” she said. However, she remained resolute and refused to take down the selfie, determined to take part in the Miss Universe pageant even though its organisers and those of Miss Iraq tried to persuade her to withdraw, a lot of them pro-Palestinian, she said.
Although she had initially been a clear favourite for one of the top three positions, she didn’t place, which came as no surprise, she said.
Idan continues to live in political exile in the US and has had her Iraqi citizenship revoked.
Asked this week if she would do it all again knowing that her controversial action would lead to so much pain, fear, and heartache, she said, “Yes, absolutely yes, 100%,” pointing out that it was a life changing moment that opened her eyes.
“[That photo] is way more important than a beauty title. I literally launched a career after that, got to do and see so much and influence so many people.”
Her experience inspired her to commit herself to work for peace between Muslims and Jews, Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East and beyond.
Through her NGO, she has addressed global forums, including the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“I don’t think being Miss Universe I could have done any of that,” she told the SA Jewish Report.
Idan said it was important for her to be in South Africa during IAW and have an opportunity to learn about the country’s history.
“My main aim as a Muslim Arab woman is to educate and engage people of all backgrounds and faiths, tell my story, and why I think it’s important to have peace with Israel,” she said.
“People who talk about Israel apartheid need to visit Israel to see the truth for themselves that it’s not apartheid. It’s a place where Jews, Arabs, and Christians co-exist. I wish other Arab countries would be more like Israel. Show me one Arab country that has a true democracy with full human rights for all including women and gays.
“In all my experience, I’ve come to realise that Boycott Divestment Sanctions activists aren’t pro-peace or pro-Palestinian, rather they are anti-Israel. This needs to change.”
On a trip to Sharpeville marking Human Rights Day, Idan was visibly moved after communicating with church leaders and members of the Sharpeville community.
She posted on Instagram, “It never occurred to me before how when some people call Israel ‘apartheid’ it affects South Africans who experienced the real apartheid.”
As a young girl, Idan knew that life in Iraq wasn’t ideal.
“People lived in fear under Saddam. Graffiti signs everywhere said, ‘Death to America’, ‘Death to Israel’.”
She recalls with horror how Saddam held celebrations for days after 9/11.
“My family was sad seeing innocent people jumping out of a building. Even with all the brainwashing, we still didn’t see things the way he wanted,” she said.
Idan loved playing soccer but as she got older, she said she kept her hair short and strapped down her breasts to look more boy-like.
“After a certain age, girls weren’t allowed to play with the boys outside. I wished I was a boy,” she recalls.
When the American soldiers first arrived in Iraq, she said she was playing soccer in the road and started saying the death prayer.
“We were told they were coming to kill us,” she said.
“The first time I saw American soldiers, I thought they were aliens coming out of their tanks. I couldn’t believe it when one of them gave us flowers, candy, and pamphlets saying we’re here to liberate you not hurt you.”
With the arrival of the soldiers so too came satellite television and American music, which she devoured in order to teach herself English.
“I loved watching the sitcom Friends on TV, and thought that I’d like to live like that,” she said.
So, on her 18th birthday, she approached a US check point and joined the US military. It opened the door to her musical and modelling career, which ultimately led to work in human rights.
At the time of going to print, Mandela hadn’t responded to Idan’s invitation.