A Selfie That Changed the World — Sarah Idan
A Selfie That Changed the World — Sarah Idan
It was just a selfie. But in less than a few hours it would change her life.
At the Miss Universe pageant in 2017, Miss Iraq took a selfie with Miss Israel. Miss Iraq posted it on Instagram. In the caption, she wrote: “Peace and Love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel.”
That was enough for Sarah Idan, Miss Iraq to receive death threats. For what? Taking a selfie with an Israeli. Listen to her shocking and uplifting story here.
- An Introduction to Sarah Idan (00:00:00)
- The Picture That Led to Death Threats (00:00:57)
- Growing Up Under Saddam’s Dictatorship (00:11:49)
- Being a Rebel with the Courage of Convictions (00:31:52)
- Building a Bridge to Bring People Together (00:52:54)
Sarah Idan is an Iraqi-American model, television host, musician, and beauty pageant titleholder. She was crowned Miss Universe Iraq 2017.
Before You Leave:
Charles Mizrahi: Sarah, thanks so much for coming on the show. I greatly appreciate it. I have been looking forward to it for the last couple of weeks when you told me you were coming on the show. I’ve been watching YouTube videos about you and podcasts. Absolutely amazing stuff.
Sarah Idan: Thank you for having me.
Charles; Let’s start from the beginning because I remember this. I can’t believe this was 2017 when this happened. It literally seems like it was yesterday. I remember it was big news that you took a selfie at the Miss Universe pageant with Miss Israel. That set your life on a totally different course, which I guarantee you did not think would happen from that.
Could you just tell us from that point? You were at the pageant. The pageant I think was in Las Vegas?
Charles: OK. So pick it up from there.
Sarah: Basically I went to Miss Universe pageant. I was really excited. It was the first year that Iraq joined the pageant since the 70s. I was welcomed. All the girls were excited to meet me. The staff, they were really excited. Part of the pageant when I went there, all the countries were walking up to me. They wanted to meet me because Iraq is back in the pageant.
Except for Adar. She was afraid to approach me. We were doing a photoshoot. I saw her. We waved at each other. Then she came over and she said she was told not to approach me.
Charles: This was Adar Gandelsman who was Miss Israel.
Sarah: Miss Israel, yes.
Charles: So you and her are at the pageant. She’s scared. She sees you and you see her. You smile at her and say hello. You are pumped. Everyone is coming over to you because you are a big time celebrity there. Iraq’s first time back. You’re just being friendly, right? Nothing more than that.
Sarah: Yes. Basically she told me they told her not to approach any Arab countries because it could cause the Arab girls problems. I told her it’s fine. She said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yes. If anything, we need to show the world. We need to take a picture and show the world we don’t have an issue.”
This pageant we’re supposed to be peace ambassadors. We’re supposed to set an example for the girls out there. We took a photo and just captioned it, “Peace and love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel.” It was not political. There was nothing in it that should have caused all the rage I got.
Charles: When you took that selfie —
Sarah: Yes, I took the selfie. She also took a selfie with her phone. We both posted it at the same time.
Charles: There was nothing. There was no, “I got a great plan to get a lot of publicity. Let’s take a photo.” That’s not what was going through your head, right?
Sarah: Not really. At that moment I was meeting all these girls. If anything, I should have went and took pictures with Miss Venezuela or Colombia because you know they are always going to win. Or South Africa. These are the top countries. They have the top followers and the top support in Miss Universe.
No, we were small countries that no one is thinking of. It’s like if you’re playing soccer and you know Brazil is at the top. Then there’s these little countries no one cares about. When I took it I was just thinking I am there and I need to behave as good as I possibly can.
I need to use this time to influence people in a good way. I wasn’t even thinking. As a lot of people know, I was born and raised in Iraq, but I have been living in the U.S. since 2009. I am an American citizen. It did not even cross my mind when I took the picture that people would have a problem because I live here in the U.S.
I thought this ideology was just Saddam and the Ba’athist Party and things they installed in Iraq to hate Israel. I didn’t realize it existed after I left. It was apparently because of the Iranian regime influence in Iraq. I just took the photo. I went to sleep. I didn’t expect it.
I woke up and literally my phone was blowing up. Tens of calls and messages from my family, from strange numbers, from the Miss Iraq Organization. Basically when I spoke to my family I asked what was going on. They said, “That picture you took. We are getting death threats.”
They got a phone call and got a death threat already. I took the photo around 8 pm and I went to sleep and woke up the next day. It took maybe 12 hours I think for them to get that, which is insane. Even that time when I took the photo and posted it, Miss Universe kept us so busy that we didn’t have time to check our social media.
I barely had the time to go and post something. I didn’t read the comments. I knew my Instagram was blowing up just because I won Miss Iraq and I was going to Miss Universe. I was getting notifications all the time. I never checked them. They kept us busy.
We would wake up at 5 am. We had to be downstairs by 6 or 7. We don’t get back to our rooms until 11 pm, sometimes until 12. We are tired, we’re exhausted. We have to make sure whenever we get the time to post something. If I don’t post, they are like, “Why are you not posting?”
People need to see what you are doing in Miss Universe. So I would just post, leave my phone and not even check. I found out from my family and the Miss Iraq organization about the death threats. I spoke with the director and he told me I needed to take down the picture. He was yelling at me.
Charles: Who is this? Who was yelling at you?
Sarah: He was the director of the Miss Iraq Organization.
Charles: To him, what you did you might not think was a big deal, but to him it was a big deal. Your parents are living where now? Living in Iraq or America?
Sarah: They left Iraq. I’d rather not discuss where they live for their safety.
Charles: That’s cool. So they are getting death threats? People are calling them up?
Sarah: They got death threats. I think Miss Iraq, they were the ones who sent them out to intimidate them, to force me to take down the pictures. They were in touch with my family. They had my family’s phone number when I was in Iraq. My mom went with me and she met with the director and all that.
I think they were the ones behind it. To me, it’s impossible. How can they get a death threat from a strange number so fast? Miss Iraq told me they had the Minister of Culture and Tourism called them and said they will take their license. Basically they were telling me what I did was being a traitor to the country.
They said, “They will take you to jail. They will kill you. You need to take down the picture.” I kept saying I didn’t do anything wrong. They said, “You did. You spoke on behalf of the Iraqis, you support the Israeli government.” I said I am not supporting the Israeli government.
All I said was peace and love from Miss Iraq and Miss Israel. This is about the people, this is not about governments. They said they would make an announcement right now and say you don’t represent Iraq, we took the title away from you and you cannot compete or you need to delete it.
I said I was not going to delete it. I said, “People already saw it. If I delete it I will look like I’m an idiot who doesn’t know how to act or doesn’t have an opinion.” If anything, this makes me look bad for the Iraqi people but even for Miss Universe.
I said the best thing I could do is write a statement and say it was not a political post and I don’t mean to harm the Palestinian cause. They basically wrote down the statement. They finished it and said I don’t support Israeli government policies in the Middle East and all of that.
That’s what I had to post right after the picture. It didn’t stop the hate.
Charles: So you get calls from the Iraqi organization in charge of this. They threaten to take away and expel you from the pageant. Your parents, I think they’re probably scared, right? They are getting death threats. Are they upset at this point? Are they saying to take down the thing?
Sarah: No. It’s really interesting. I talked to them and they were the only thing I can say that would cause me to take down the picture. Instead, they said don’t delete it. They said to keep doing what I’m doing. They said, “We’re leaving Iraq.” I said, “Are you sure?” They said, “We’re sure.”
I already had family members who were living in another Arab country. They said they were just going to move and stay with my other siblings. They left within three days.
Charles: They left where?
Sarah: They left Iraq. They went to a different Arab country.
Charles: They are in Iraq when they are getting these threats and your parents are telling you, “Don’t take it down.” Is that right?
Charles: Wow. That’s crazy.
Sarah: Yeah. They said, “It’s not your fault.” This country — sorry — f’d up. That’s basically what they said. They said to continue doing what I was doing.
Charles: I thought we were under different history here. I know you served in the U.S. Army as a translator.
Sarah: As a translator.
Charles: That was a serious position because if you were caught by the other side, especially a woman, they wouldn’t treat you so kindly, to put it mildly. So you volunteer in 2009 or so?
Charles: How old were you in 2008?
Sarah: I was 18. I got the job on my birthday in February.
Charles: What motivated you, a good Iraqi girl, and probably a nice traditional family, what made you join the United States Army in Iraq?
Sarah: I’ll tell you. It might be a long story. Are you willing to listen? I gotta go back in history.
Charles: I own the podcast. We can be here all day.
Sarah: I grew up under Saddam dictatorship. For 13 years under Saddam dictatorship we were told the U.S. hates us. They want to kill all the Iraqis. We only had three TV channels controlled by Saddam. You go in the streets and everywhere you see, “Death to America,” “Death to Israel,” “Palestine will be liberated.”
These were their slogans. For 13 years it was not an easy life. No one liked Saddam I don’t think. Except maybe the people who worked directly for him. We used to joke about him. We used to make fun of him. We see him on TV smoking his Cuban cigars, wearing his fur.
The people can’t even find money to eat. We were under siege. He kept us in poverty. No, we did not like him. At the same time, we didn’t know what was going on in the world. We were in a bubble. It’s like North Korea. We have no way of reaching the outside world or talking to anyone to find out what’s going on.
When the invasion happened and when the U.S. came in, I remember I was on the street playing soccer with my friends. We were on the freeway. We had no idea that the U.S. came in. There was no electricity, nothing. Literally, we didn’t know. Initially the convoy came in.
I remember I saw the convoy. I saw the tanks and the Humvees. I looked at them and said, “What is that? Are those aliens?” To me it looked like aliens. My mind could not comprehend. You know when you watch sci-fi? It was like sci-fi watching these alien ships coming.
Charles: This is 2003. You are a 13-year-old girl. You are playing soccer and all the sudden you see American troops come in. That night, I don’t know how many Saudis we had, we came in there big time. In your neighborhood, there weren’t any bombs going off in your neighborhood?
Sarah: During the bombing, yes. We were bombed. There was a school — it was my school actually — two blocks from my home. What Saddam did during the war, he put — what do you call them? The anti plane or something? The rockets?
Charles: Anti aircraft.
Sarah: Yeah. He put his military in every school in every neighborhood. I remember in the war an airplane would fly and we would hear it. They’d start shooting at the airplane. My dad would curse at the people and curse at Saddam. He would say, “Will you stop shooting? They are going to bomb the entire neighborhood. They are going to kill us.”
Even in that moment when we knew we were going to die, we knew it was because of Saddam and his strategy. His strategy of literally putting military in neighborhoods.
Charles: Civilian neighborhoods.
Sarah: That’s what happened. They bombed the school. I remember because of the explosion all the glass in our home was shattered. Some shrapnel came through from the back and it was crazy. It was all because of his military strategy that uses us as expendables.
We did not like him. We wanted him gone. But when the U.S. came in, first of all, not a single Iraqi who was living in Iraq thought there would be a U.S. invasion. Not a single one. This is why it came as a shock and surprise.
Charles: Why? Why did you think that? What made you so positive that the U.S. would never invade?
Sarah: Because, first of all, we had no news. We had only the Ba’ath regime news. We had only three channels and they told us what they believed. Also because we had only two wars. We had bombing in 1990 and then we had another bombing in 1998 I think, during Clinton. It happened for a couple days.
Every now and then they would bomb us for a few days and then it stops. So I remember at the time no one thought there was going to be an invasion. I remember right before the war there was a time when things got weird and strange. It was quiet. I remember I always used to wake up at 4 am or 3 am because it was the only time you could get a signal on the radio.
You’d get some radio stations. Saddam, they used something to block the radio. So we could not hear the radio.
Charles: They jammed it.
Sarah: There was one channel — it means “the resistance.” There was another one called Radio Sawa, which was Lebanese. I used to wake up very early just to hear them because it was the only time you could hear them. I remember I heard Radio Sawa, which was the Lebanese but also international news. It’s very recognized.
I would hear them a little bit. I heard they are sending I don’t know how many soldiers to reach the Gulf. I remember I heard that and I told my dad. I said, “Dad, I think there’s going to be an invasion this time. I heard it on the radio.” He said, “No, you hear many things on the radio. They are just going to bomb us for a few days and that’s going to be it.”
I had a little suspicion only because I was hearing thousands of soldiers were coming. Their ships had just reached Saudi Arabia or they were in the Gulf preparing to invade. I heard all that on Radio Sawa. None of the Iraqis thought there was going to be an invasion.
We thought the U.S. was going to bomb us for maybe a month and they will retreat.
Charles: So bombing was like, “Eh alright, they’ll bomb us.” For an American, it’s so weird to even think that. Alright, we’re going to be bombed today. A school might blow up. You are saying, “Alright, they’re bombing. It will be over soon.” This is a 13-year-old girl saying this.
You are listening to the radio. Your parents are telling you to go back to sleep, it ain’t happening. Now you are playing soccer, it’s 2003, you see convoys of U.S. troops coming in. What are you thinking?
Sarah: First I froze in my place. I couldn’t move. I was like, “What is that?” The way they came there were buildings. So when they approached they were already too close to me. I just froze. First my mind was trying to comprehend what is that. Are those aliens? What is going on?
Then all of the sudden I see the tank, I saw the gun. I was like, “Oh my god, that’s the military. Is this U.S. military?” I had no idea. We also had a sandstorm going on during that. You could barely see. All of the sudden they got too close. I remember my girlfriends who were playing with me and they were all little.
They were hiding behind me. I remember I saw the gunner on the tank. He moved his gun toward me. I saw a red laser in my face blinding me. I just said our prayer. That’s the prayer you recite before you think you are dying for all Muslims. It’s our death prayer.
I said that and I thought they were going to shoot me, they were going to kill me. Then the guy who is moving the gun did that and then he said he was just joking. He was laughing. I was laughing nervously.
Charles: How close was he?
Sarah: I don’t know how I would describe it. How can I describe it? I really don’t know. We use meters.
Charles: He’s close enough that you could see him.
Sarah: He’s close enough that I could see him. They kept moving. They did not stop. Then he was like, “Hi!” We all started waving back nervously and smiling. Please don’t kill us, we’ll wave. They came near us, they got out, they started giving us pamphlets and flowers and candy.
I’m like “What is going on?” I read the pamphlet and it said, “We’re not here to kill you. We’re here to help you from the Ba’ath regime.” I remember I took it and ran to my family. Also, it said something really funny. It said, “If you know any Ba’ath Party member you need to turn them in.”
I took it and ran to my family. I’m like, “Oh my god, they’re here. The Americans are here!” I showed them the pamphlet. They looked at it. We just looked at it and started laughing hysterically. The pamphlet said to turn in any Ba’ath Party member.
In Iraq, once you turn 13 you have to join the Ba’ath party. By definition, all my family was Ba’ath Party, except for me. I’m like, “I’m going to turn you all in.” We were all laughing. Are we going to turn in the entire Iraqi? That should tell you how little the U.S., like their misinformation.
When they came into Iraq, they were not prepared. That should tell you. We were laughing at what they were asking of us. Anyway, that’s when they started coming. They came into our neighborhood. They took off their helmets. They were playing soccer with us.
They were just so nice. They were trying to communicate. Everyone was so happy. People were dancing with them. I don’t know if the U.S. media showed it. I hope it did. When I come here and tell people that they’re like, “What? We thought they were killing you.” No. That’s not how it happened at all.
Basically they came and they were so sweet. I remember we had an amusement park next to our home. They came and brought power generators. They generated them so there was literally an American soldier operating the ferris wheel and all the things for us kids.
We were playing. It was for free for the first time. We didn’t need to pay to get on the ferris wheel. It was weird, but it was interesting. It was a fun time. I remember at that time it was when I really wanted to learn English. In school they taught us the basics like, “How are you?” “What’s your name?” That’s it.
I started teaching myself English by listening to music. Also, when the U.S. came they brought us satellites. Every family installed satellites in their home. All the sudden we were getting all this stuff from Europe, the Middle East. That’s when we were finally out of the bubble.
We were watching and we could see the world for what it is. During that time I remember all I was thinking was, “Oh my god, my whole life was based on a lie.” The U.S. wanted us dead, they wanted to kill us, but they were so sweet. I remember I was thinking looking at the soldiers and how they were playing with the kids and giving the kids so much attention.
That’s something that’s not in my own culture. In our culture, you don’t care about kids until they grow up. They are not listened to. I saw that and thought they were so sweet. As a child, I like that. I started teaching myself.
Charles: These are American servicemen and women who you are seeing for the first time. Some people in our country just get it wrong. They say they were evil and they did this and that. You were on the ground there and you see how they were caring and taking care.
Sarah: Of course. Listen, of course there are bad apples in every military. In every military you have bad people. But I think as a majority they were good. The majority wanted to help us. There were a few incidences where bad things happened. Like in Abu Ghraib, the prison.
But that unit that got tried by the U.S. for their crime, those are not the same as the entire military in Iraq. They were used. The bad apples were used by the media, especially channels like Al Jazeera who hated the U.S. and hated their presence in Iraq.
They were used to say U.S. soldiers are slaughtering Iraqis. It never happened. They never went and shot at innocent people for no reason. That never happened. What did happen was in 2004, when we had Qatar, Iran and all these countries and people coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan vying for power.
We had the civil war. Those terrorists, just like Saddam, they didn’t care about the Iraqi people. They would send their suicide bomber in an Iraqi market if they see American soldiers standing there. He would go and blow himself up, killing U.S. soldiers and 20 Iraqi people.
Besides that, they would shoot at the U.S. soldier convoys while they were among people. They shot rockets at them, mortars, bullets. This is when things started to go down. The U.S. would respond. Imagine you are in a convoy and you are being shot at, you shoot back. And people are caught in the middle.
I would say because of that, some people started to harbor resentment because they would lose a family member. To be honest with you, those people I understand why. But logically they should not. They should be angry at the people who started shooting while people were around.
This is why I am sympathetic when it comes to Israel. It’s exactly the same situation. You’ve got Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They shoot at Israelis. They shoot from Palestinian neighborhoods. They don’t mind putting their women and children at the front to sacrifice them just to be martyrs and kill Israelis.
It’s the same situation. A lot of people ask me why I say this. Because I lived it. I lived it in Iraq. Basically when we had the civil war, things were bad in Iraq. You couldn’t walk. That was the first time I was forced to wear a hijab. If I walk outside the militia would stop you.
They were like, “Cover your hair. Your hair is showing.” That’s when my family was living in a Shia-majority neighborhood in Baghdad. But we were Sunni. We got a death threat and they left us a bullet with a paper saying, “Leave or else.” We were the lucky ones.
Many Sunni families were slaughtered in their sleep. We left our home overnight. We went to Syria. I remember some strange family came and took our house and were living there for two or three years. We left at the end of 2005, maybe the beginning. I can’t remember. We came back in 2007.
When we came back it wasn’t any better. We got back but we couldn’t go back to our home. My mom took me and went there to negotiate with the family and ask them to leave. Things were calming down, but the men were still not safe to come back. My dad and brothers had to live in Babylon, where my tribe is originally from.
They are protected by the tribe. Me and my sister went there and when we saw it I said, “I have no future here.” I don’t see a future for myself. I told my family and my mom. I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t see a future here. I am forced to wear a hijab. I can’t even go to school. I can’t do anything.”
Even if you go to school, the system was corrupt. Everything was corrupt. Iraq was turning into the Islamic Republic in Iran. Besides that, you literally walked to school and see car bombs and suicide bombers on the road by the time you make it to school. You’d be lucky if you make it alive.
I saw that and told them I want to work with the U.S. military. To be honest with you, right before we went to Syria I did go to a U.S. checkpoint and said, “I want to work for you.” My plan was even after I saw everything that happened I knew it. I looked at the U.S. soldiers and said if this is how those people behave and treat humans, I don’t want to be here. I want to be in the U.S.
This is what a lot of people don’t understand. This is why I love this country so much. I saw a level of humanity that I did not see among my own people during the civil war. We were killing each other. I remember I went to a checkpoint and I said, “I want to work for you.”
They said my English is good, but you are tiny. They said, “How old are you?” I said I was 15. They said, “Sorry, come back when you turn 18 and we will hire you.” That’s when I went back, on my eighteenth birthday. I got the job.
Charles: The job was translator. How long did you serve?
Sarah: I was there two years. I started in February 2008 — almost two years — I left in November 2009. It was a while. I watched many units come and go. I worked with many units. First I was with the 4th ID from Fort Carson, Colorado. Then they left. Then we had the Arkansas National Guard. Then we had Texas National Guard.
It was a good time. My job, even as a translator, that’s not all we did. My job was literally doing everything a soldier did, but getting paid a salary like I was a translator and getting none of the benefits the veterans have. That was a bit ugh. But listen, to me the biggest reward was to get a Green Card and come to the U.S. and become a U.S. citizen. That’s all I could ask for.
Charles: When did you come to the United States?
Sarah: November 2009.
Charles: You come in November 2009. When you’re at this pageant, you’re already enculturated into America. You’ve been through so much. You’re not thinking like an Iraqi. You’re not thinking like a Muslim in a county that…
Sarah: I don’t think I ever thought like an Iraqi.
Charles: Sounds like it. That’s true.
Sarah: To be honest with you, since I was a kid, no.
Charles: You were a rebel. You knew. You had some inner compass tell you that this is not right. You had the courage and conviction.
Sarah: There were a lot of things in our society and even our religion that I did not agree with since I was a kid. I thought they were unfair. I remember growing up when I was a kid I wished I was a boy. I used to cut my hair short just so I could go play soccer with the other kids.
You reach an age when you’re 10 or something and you cannot go as a girl on the street and play. Your family has to keep you inside the home. I remember I would pretend I’m a guy. People would call me Ahmed. It’s really sad.
Charles: Wow. Now you set the stage for me. Now I have a much bigger picture of who you are and that spirit you have of doing the right thing and knowing what the right thing is without being told. When you saw Miss Israel there, it was nothing to you. You were not thinking.
There was no planning. You have served with the U.S. Army. You’ve been living here. So what’s the big deal? Now you are getting all these threats. What happens after that? You stand strong. You say, “I’m not retracting. I’m not listening to you people anymore.” What do you do from that point on?
Sarah: I remember I tried to delete as many comments on my Instagram. That was the first time I got a message on Instagram. It said, “__.” It meant, “Consider yourself dead.” I remember I was with my roommate, Miss Egypt. I looked at her and said, “What is that?” It says if you ever step in an Arabic country consider yourself dead. What is that?
We googled it. “حركة المقاومة الإسلامية” It came up as Hamas.
Charles: What do you mean you googled it and it was Hamas?
Sarah: Apparently Hamas is an abbreviation.
Charles: Oh an acronym. Hamas. I got it.
Sarah: I didn’t even know. I was like, “Oh my god, Hamas is sending this?” It was a little crazy. I remember it was a lot of negativity I was getting. I was having a lot of panic attacks. Miss Universe, I feel so bad for them. They had to send me to the ER so many times for panic attacks.
They had to put special security for me because of the death threats. Every time I would walk downstairs, literally I would leave my room and the security is waiting for me outside my room. They had to walk with us. All the girls are like, “What is going on?” Then I talked to them.
They said it was OK, it was for security. I remember the President Paula Shugart came to me one day before the televised pageant and told me, “Sarah, if you want to leave the pageant and it’s OK. I can make an announcement and you can leave.”
I said, “Why are you telling me this?” She said, “I don’t want to cause you any problems. You are going to be on TV.” That’s when I realized I don’t have a chance with Miss Universe. I sensed they were scared. They were scared of liability.
Charles: They were scared for them and scared for you.
Sarah: They were scared. She came and she told me to withdraw. She said, “If you want to withdraw it’s fine. We can say you changed your mind.” I looked at her and said, “Are you kidding me? After everything I have been through you think I am going to withdraw now?”
No. That’s when I realized it was done. It’s kind of sad. I would say this, and this is what a lot of people don’t understand. They say, “Why did you become an activist for the Jewish people and for Israel?” Because when this thing happened I was getting a lot of hate and conspiracy theories.
There are still videos on YouTube. People accusing me of being secretly Jewish and saying I was born in Tel Aviv. They started showing my pictures when I was with the U.S. military and saying I was a Mossad CIA agent. I don’t know how they managed. I’m CIA and I’m Mossad.
I don’t know how I did it, but I did it, right? [laughing] I was getting a lot of hate saying I’m a descendant of pigs and monkeys, that I’m going to hell. I was getting anti-Semitism basically. All those people thought I was Jewish.
Charles: You were subject to the worst kind of anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel and hatred of being Jewish, to the point where people thought you were Jewish or wanted to believe you were Jewish. You got a taste of what that’s like for Israelis and Jewish people. Is that right?
Sarah: Exactly. In the beginning I was trying to converse with the people. I said, “Why do you say that? No, they are just a religion. They are just like us.” They said, “No, they are cursed by God.” That’s what a lot of Muslims believe. That’s not how I was raised, but that’s when I realized we had anti-Semitism issue in our religion.
I remember many accounts even had pictures of Hitler and some other Nazi leaders. They were telling me Hitler should have finished the job. I still get that by the way. This is something daily. I can guarantee you right now, if I go on my Instagram and look in the last few hours I will see someone who said, “You are a Jew.” Always something with “a Jew.”
This is why I launched my activism. I realized it. I know this mentality very well. This mentality is the reason I lost my country. This is the mentality of the people who caused the civil war, who were killing me because I was Sunni, killing a Shia because they were Shia. It’s the same radical Islamism.
Even in my work when I am motivated, for me, radical Islam has always been a big concern for me.
Charles: It’s amazing hearing you say that because so many Americans in this country on the left, Democrats, you can’t say radical Islam because Islam is a nation and religion of peace. There are people who follow Islam who are peaceful, but they don’t want to recognize a movement within Islam which is large that wants to destroy everything that is Islamic.
Sarah: If we did not have radical Islamists, we would have democracies in the Middle East. That should tell you something.
Sarah: Look at Saudi Arabia. Look at Emirates. You know they are working 24/7 to find radical Islamists in their communities, in their mosques, in their countries and fighting them. For them, this is an ongoing war. In Muslim countries, Muslims suffer from radical Islam too.
Sadly, yes, we have it in huge numbers. It’s an issue for us as well. This is something Americans need to understand. It’s OK to talk about it. Radical Islam does exist. I am living proof. I cannot even go back to my country. My childhood, the civil war, should tell you that we do have radical Islamists and they do target not only Americans and westerns, yes the U.S. is on their top list to kill, but they even hate their own.
They want you to be just as corrupt. Look at Iran. Look at the Iranian regime and how they treat their own people.
Charles: Especially now.
Sarah: They are just corrupt people.
Charles: The Iranian people are rising up, the women especially, against the hijab. These people are extremely brave and no one is helping them at this point. It just fascinates me how so many in this country apologize for that type of behavior and let it go on.
These are progressives who care about women’s right. Here women are being tortured.
Sarah: You have no idea how many times I have these fights with these Progressives and people who are trying to tell me about my religion. I am the one who lived it. Shut up. You were born privileged here in the United States. You were never forced to wear hijab.
You didn’t have any fear of your freedoms taken. They don’t get it. I always say this, those people, just give them one day in our countries. Watch how they change their tune.
Charles: I remember it was ’91 and Desert Storm where — I think it was ’91. Maybe I’m mistaken. I don’t remember exactly when. Americans went to Iraq to act as human shield around missiles. The Iraqi people are like, “Are you crazy?”
These were Americans coming because they didn’t want Americans to bomb certain places in Iraq. They put themselves in certain places. They said, “Do you know what you’re defending?” You’re defending a dictator who kills people.
Sarah: Exactly. Who gassed his own people. Killed 200,000. Who is the cause of the entire sanctions because he wants to be the leader of all Arab countries and remove Israel from the map. He’s an insane person. He’s killing his own people. They don’t care.
Charles: Isn’t it amazing the only country in the UN that is vocal about destroying a member state, wiping them off the map — Iran against Israel — and they get to sit in the same body. The Iranian President spoke at the UN. It’s absolutely stunning.
Sarah: Don’t get me started on the UN. They have Iran sitting at the committee of women’s rights, still.
Charles: That makes a mockery of all the UN and all these organizations.
Sarah: The UN, when people hear the UN they think it’s an amazing organization all about human rights. It’s not. It’s the most corrupt entity I ever came across. I went and spoke twice. I went to their Human Rights Council in Geneva and I went to New York.
I have seen them. I have heard their speeches. I have heard the countries. It’s nothing like what people imagine. You really need to be involved in that world to understand.
Charles: Unbelievable. So you started an organization, right? Humanity Forward. Before we even talk about that, you actually went to Israel and met Adar, which I think was 2019 or so, if I’m not mistaken.
Charles: OK. I saw it on YouTube. You went. You met Adar again. You shared a hug, a beautiful reunion. You went to Israel’s Mahane Yehuda, which is the marketplace. The Iraqi Jews who were there were greeting you. Women were standing in line to take pictures with you.
They were so happy to see you. Could you tell us about that?
Sarah: It was an amazing experience. I remember when I went to Israel I didn’t know what was waiting for me. I did remember a lot of my Iraqi Jewish friends who are living here in LA told me not to go. Isn’t that crazy? They told me, “Sarah, don’t go.”
Sarah: At the time, even before the pageant, I was making music in Cairo, Egypt, and I was working with Arab media and music industry. They told me if I go to Israel that will be it for me. No more relations with any Arabs, you can’t even go to Arab countries.
I said, “I really don’t care. I think this cause is more important.” I remember I talked with AJC and they were the ones who invited me to go there and sponsor me and to speak. I spoke at their huge conference there.
Charles: The AJC is the American Jewish Committee.
Sarah: American Jewish Committee. Sorry, sometimes I forget.
Charles: That’s OK.
Sarah: So I remember they told me they don’t have any Iraqis who feel safe enough to come and speak. We desperately need Iraqi people and Arab voices to come and say we want peace with Israel. I said, “What do you mean? No one?” They said, “No, no one.” I felt like I had to be the first to do it.
I was already blessed that I live in the U.S. and I’m safe, who cares about the relations with Arabs? I have always thought sooner or later there will be peace between Israel and Arabs. I went there and I didn’t know what was waiting for me. I also had Palestinian American friends here I spoke with.
I said I am going to go and have a speech. I want to talk about peace, but I don’t want to insult you in any way. They looked at my speech and said, “It’s fine. We just want peace.” There are Palestinian Americans who really want peace with Israel. They are not the Hamas people.
I remember I went there and the minute I got to the hotel the guy who came was the hotel manager, his name was Mustafa. He came up to me and said, “Let me take your bags. Let us welcome you.” I said, “Wait. Your name is Mustafa. You are an Arab?”
I’m like, “What are you doing here?” I was completely ignorant. That’s what the media tells us, right? Israel is a Jewish state.
Charles: Two million Arabs are Israeli citizens.
Sarah: I didn’t know.
Charles: With full rights. Not the apartheid garbage.
Sarah: I didn’t know. He was laughing at me. He’s like, “Is this your first time here?” I said yes. He said, “Sarah, there are so many Arabs who live here.” I’m like, “But you’re Palestinian and you live in Israel?” He’s like, “I am Israeli Arab, but yes my ancestors are Palestinians. I call myself Israeli Arab.”
I said, “We need to have a long conversation. I need to hear your side because you live here.” I had breakfast with him and he was telling me, “Everything you have heard, let me tell you, we have only one problem and that problem is __,’ which means the militia, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
He said those are the problem. He said, “The Palestinians, even in the West Bank, we want to co-exist. We want to find a solution, but there are people who don’t want a solution.” That really changed my perspective. After that I remember going and meeting with Iraqis.
I went to Yafo and Haifa. They are areas in Israel that are full of Arabs and Muslims.
Charles: Just to share, Haifa is one of the most integrated cities in Israel with a large Israeli Arab population. They live together in the same neighborhoods.
Sarah: Exactly. I remember I was walking and it was the end of Ramadan and the beginning of Eid. So when I was walking in the streets I remember I looked at the Muslims families and some wearing hijab. Then you see people wearing kippah and they are Jewish.
I looked at the signs and they had all these signs in the street that said, “Ramadan Kareem” and they said, “Eid.” They acknowledged the Muslim holidays. They said it in Arabic and they said it in Hebrew. I looked at it and said, “Wow, this is a democracy. This is like the U.S.” This is how all Arab countries should be.
Charles: As you know, there are Israeli Arabs who sit in Israel’s Parliament. They have seats in the Parliament. One of the justices of the Israeli Supreme Court is an Israeli Arab.
Sarah: You need to understand, this happened in 2018. I just rolled out of Miss Universe.
Charles: Oh no, I’m not blaming you at all. I’m just saying for our viewers to know the culture shock you went to going there. The lies that are constantly spread about Israel and the Jewish people are just not so. All you have to do is do what you did: just go there.
Sarah: Exactly. That’s what I always tell people. I have watched so many of my American friends here from California who are very progressive. Some of them, one of my friends, found out through a DNA test he was Jewish. He went there on his birth rights.
He was like a Bernie Sanders supporter. You understand how they feel about Israel. He came back and said, “Sarah, oh my god.” He completely changed. He said, “I don’t get the progressives here. Why are we anti-Israel? It’s a beautiful democracy and they are surrounded by all these countries that want to kill them and want to wipe them off the map.”
Now you understand. That’s what I tell people: Go there. Before you go on Google, open articles and think you are educated, go there. Just go there. Talk to the people.
Charles: Beautiful. So tell us about Humanity Forward. What is it? When did you start it? What do you do?
Sarah: I started Humanity Forward at the end of 2018 after I came back from Israel. I was being invited a lot to speak and I realize I have some sort of influence. I decided I needed to start this organization. I need to bring Arabs and Muslims together. I still have a huge Iraqi and Arab following on Instagram.
My purpose of my organization is to raise awareness. I make daily posts about it, but I also go and speak at universities, on campuses and in different countries. I went to speak in South Africa during the week of Apartheid. I went to speak in Germany. I went to speak in the UK. All over the world.
Also what I do a lot with my organization is work with other organizations like Israeli Flying Aid or Save a Child’s Heart. I try to get them in touch with Iraqis who need help. I think that’s the way you can bridge and bring people together. There needs to be a sense of unity.
They need to feel like someone cares about them. That’s what I’ve been doing with my organization.
Charles: Wow. I’m going to put a link down below in my description. This is a non-profit. You run on donations. That’s how you do your work, which is amazing. Last thing for you and I want you to have the last word on this. What message would you give the Muslim world about America, Israel, about existing as citizens of this world and not wanting to kill?
Sarah: To the Muslim world I think we really need to reform. We need to reform and we need to stop allowing radical voices to have platforms, speak and preach to people. Whether it’s online, on TV or in mosques or in schools, we need to start working on that. Islam is the only religion that’s not reformed.
Christianity has been reformed, Judaism has been reformed, but we still live with the laws of 1,000 years ago.
Charles: Right, you’re living in the Twelfth Century.
Sarah: Exactly. But the good thing I think is a lot of the Muslims are waking up in the Arab world, would say. I don’t know about other countries, but in the Arab world they are waking up. They are becoming more westernized. Not westernized. They are becoming more free.
We always say westernized because it’s where freedom came from. As Arab people, we look at the western world like freedom. I think they became more like the west in their freedom. We really need to focus on that. In the Muslim world, we tend to get more defensive if we feel like our religion is under attack.
It’s a normal reaction. Yeah, we should do that, but we should not get defensive if it’s someone who is radical or a radical thought or radical policy that’s being questioned. We need to draw a line I would say.
Charles: Great message. Sarah, keep doing what you’re doing. God bless you. It’s just amazing. All from one selfie. Folks, I’ll put it in the description. I’ll put a link to that one selfie that sparked an organization that got you on speaking circuits, that also got you death threats.
But you are speaking the truth with the courage it takes. Let’s face it, not everyone can do what you do. You know that, right?
Sarah: Thank you. Thank you, but you know I think since I came out and spoke I think a lot of Arabs are doing that, especially after the Abraham Accords. Hopefully we will see more people in the future.
Charles: Are you hearing that from your friends? Are you seeing that from the people you know? Are they telling you that?
Sarah: Definitely. Things have changed. After the Abraham Accords they changed 100%. The Arab countries, especially Arab countries, are trying to build relations now with Emirates, Bahrain, even Saudi Arabia. They are trying to do that.
Charles: I had on the show just a few weeks ago, Jason Greenblatt. We was talking about the Abraham Accords. He was saying he was meeting with the Palestinians and meeting with the Arab nations and the young people want to have peace.
In fact, he said the teenage Palestinians and young people want a Mobileye. Like Intel, a $15 billion company bought an Israeli company called Mobileye. He said, “We want to have one.”
He tried to arrange something but Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian National Authority said it can only be 10 people in a special room, no photography. They didn’t want it out there. They didn’t want a forum.
Sarah: Yes, because they want to keep taking money from the UN and from the world. How much money did Biden give them? $160 million or something?
Charles: Yeah, they just don’t get it. They paid billions of dollars over the years.
Sarah: They want to live off donation from the world. They are not even giving that money to their people. The Palestinians are like Iraq under Saddam. They get electricity a few hours a day. They cannot work because Abbas and all those people keep the money to themselves. This is why they need a change.
Charles: Someone came up to me and said, “Look what Israel is doing in Gaza.” Israel is not in Gaza. It’s run by Hamas. Everything you hear is what’s happening with Hamas. They just don’t care.
Sarah: They need to understand, the people who are funding Hamas are terrorists like the Iranian regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and people who hate the United States, who hate Israel. This is not about helping Palestinians. This is about killing all the Jews.
If you look at their flags: “Death to the Jews. Victory to Islam.” This is ideology. You are supporting genocide of the Jewish people, you are not supporting freedom.
Charles: From the river to the sea Palestine will be free, which means wiping out the Jewish state.
Sarah: Why can’t they understand Egypt would not let it? They have a siege on Gaza too. They would not let a single Gaza through the borders. This should tell you even Arab Muslims don’t want them in their country because they know how dangerous they are. They are radical.
Charles: Amazing. Folks, the amazing Sarah Idan who took a picture, posted it on Instagram and changed the world. Sarah, thank you so much. God bless you and continue to do great things.
Sarah: Thank you. Thank you so much.
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