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Apr. 15 2010 - 6:51 pm | 1,741 views | 0 recommendations | 11 comments

Islam and Simon Cowell: ‘Idol’ judge is causing a stir with his Afghan fiancée

Simon Cowell and Mezghan Hussainy at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Oscars Party in West Hollywood, California on March 7 (Larry Busacca/Getty)

One of the last times I give a talk for my book (“Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots”), a woman in hijab asked me when Americans would begin “trusting” Islam. By that, she meant, “When will Islam be considered just another religion – like Judaism and Christianity – and not a faith to be treated with fear and suspicion.” Speaking into a microphone, I made an analogy to AIDS and to soccer. In 1985, Rock Hudson’s HIV-status put (for the first time) a famous public face on the disease, helping Americans come to terms with an illness that was marginalized by mainstream culture. In 1998, French soccer player Zinedine Zidane led his national team to World Cup triumph, putting a positive public face on France’s large Arab and Muslim population. Zidane and Hudson weren’t panaceas – they were celebrities who brought humanity to people’s thinking.

Flash ahead to February 14th of this year, when “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell became engaged to an Afghan-American woman who hails from a Muslim family. Cowell’s fiancée, a make-up artist named Mezhgan Hussainy, met the “Idol” curmudgeon on the set of the famous music program. There is rampant speculation (see here, here and here) on whether Hussainy is a practicing Muslim – and whether Cowell will convert to Islam before their announced wedding date in July. The fever has reached such a peak that it spread a few hours ago to my in-box. There, I got an urgent email from elan magazine that was headed, “Simon Cowell Converting?” The email teaser refers to the magzine’s blog post, which has a photo of Cowell grinning with these words superimposed: “WTFatwa!”

Nice. elan magazine is devoted to covering “global Muslim youth culture,” and its emphasis on humor and pop matters is a refreshing antidote to the seriousness often attached to its subjects. Simon Cowell is a polarizing figure, but his reach is undeniable. Millions of Americans (and Brits, and other nationalities) admire Cowell for his (choose one or mix and match) entrepreneurship, put-down-manship, fame, wealth, power, smarts, and doggedness. “American Idol” is a genuine phenomenon, and for Cowell’s procession of fans (and enemies), his conversion to Islam would be akin to Cassius Clay’s change in faith and name. Some of Cowell’s followers aren’t taking too kindly to his engagement to a woman from Afghanistan.

“Yes, she is very pretty,” said one person about Mezhgan Hussainy, “but I’d be worried she could be a ‘cell’ for Afghanistan, and have a bomb under her coat someday to kill as many of us as she could. Stranger things have happened. Think about it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

I’ve thought about it, and the comment is saturated in paranoia. Like I told the hijab-wearing woman in my book talk, no one thing or person will change the perception of Islam – it will be a series of events, some of them unforeseen, that humanize the religion. Picture this: Cowell’s wedding takes place this summer, and TV cameras record a procession of Afghan men (Hussainy’s uncles, cousins, et al.) in traditional dress who shout out their religious blessings in Dari. That in itself would be worth noting. Never mind if Cowell converts to Islam, which is expecting too much from someone like him: An arrogant man who shows his disdain for anything that’s bigger than Simon Cowell.


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  1. collapse expand

    Jesus, how do you trust a people who are sworn to murder everyone…including muslim women who show some skin?

  2. collapse expand

    If the sacrifice of Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, as publicized by the New Yorker, then Colin Powell, then Maureen Dowd, couldn’t do it, I’m not sure what could.

    Time. It’s just going to take time.



  3. collapse expand

    Wow, better said that Muslim girls will look at Mezghan and say “Look what can be!” Proof, that The Change is happening.

  4. collapse expand

    I would think of Cowell converted that would just get more people to hate Islam. And it’s not like Hussainy is “typical” i.e. she’s not in a burqua or hijab. Most Americans would think an Indian, esp a Sikh in a “turban” are more “obviously” Muslim. Look at Cat Stevens conversion — he went from a fairly likeable guy, to sort of a jerk with the Salman Rushdie stuff, and now he gets thrown off planes for being a “terrorist.”

  5. collapse expand

    Hands down the best headline I’ve ever seen. The HP editor’s, not yours. “Will Simon Cowell’s marriage help Muslims in America?” It’s mind-bending…kind of like an Escher painting.

    I certainly understand the point I think you’re making- the idea that middle Americans might be less hysterical about non-whites because a Limey game show personality married an Afghan.

    I just can’t help thinking that if Simon’s nuptual (read $5 million(us) beard implant ceremony) is a candidate for rehabilitating the intelligence of legions of idol fans, with particular respect to geopolitics and race relations, the battle might very well be already lost.

  6. collapse expand

    Now they’re coming in waves…

    FROM AP: Mel Gibson’s ex-girlfriend to help Chernobyl kids…

    i feel i’ve eaten an entire bottle of Mugatu’s crazy pills. god bless america and not Gambia.

  7. collapse expand

    Well I apologize in advance if this sounds sexist, but look what beauty can be found behind the veil. Overall, I think this marriage could be good for Muslim-Americans. Ms. Hussainy demonstrates that Muslims can indeed become part of our melting pot.

    However, whatever good this union may produce will be undone if Mr. Cowell feels he must convert to Islam. Conversion to please his fiance, or more likely her family, will demonstrate just how far Muslims have to go to integrate themselves into our society.

    And yes, I realize that Islam is certainly not the only supremacist idealogy which coerces members to only marry from within. But that does not make it any more palatable.

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    About Me

    Filmmaker Michael Moore may hate former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who may distrust Mohammed Fadlallah (the former spiritual head of Hezbollah) but all three can agree on one thing: They liked meeting journalist Jonathan Curiel. That’s me. I don’t fawn over people I interview, but I give them room to talk before formulating an opinion (or two). Beyond my journalism (a long reporting stint for the San Francisco Chronicle, plus freelancing for the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Columbia Journalism Review, and others), I’ve taught as a Fulbright Scholar at Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan; and conducted research at England’s Oxford University, as a Reuters Foundation Fellow. I’m also the author of “Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots.” If journalists are what they cover, then I’m an omnivore – someone as interested in Picasso and Seinfeld as I am in Washington politics and foreign affairs.

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