An occasion that should have been marked by excitement, smiles and unity spiraled into death and rape threats for Miss Iraq 2017, Sarah Idan, after the country's first pageant representative in 45 years posed for a photo with then-competitor Miss Israel, Adar Gandelsman, with an Instagram caption reading "Peace and Love."
And the backlash hasn't stopped.
In the initial wave of anger, the Iraqi government demanded their national representative take down the photograph, apologize and condemn Israel – which Idan refused to do. Two years on, Adnan’s daily life remains plagued by death threats and accusations of being a “traitor.” Her family – all Iraqi Muslims – have since had to flee their homeland.
Still, the former beauty queen and TV host remains a vehemently forthright champion of inter-religious tolerance and is an anti-Hamas activist, making her a deeply polarizing and widely ridiculed public figure in her homeland.
“Israel has a right to exist and its existence doesn’t mean Palestine will suffer. On the contrary, it could be the end of suffering for them when they reach a peace deal,” Idan, 29, told Fox News. “It is acknowledging two independent and equal states and saving them from the hands of extremist militias.”
A couple of years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Adnan and her family escaped to neighboring Syria – before returning a few years later. But growing up in a nation ravaged by oppression and conflict, Idan said, as a teen she started to question what was being taught at school and in the broader community. Around the same time, at age 13, she started to learn English.
“[We were taught] that Israel is our enemy, that they seek to destroy the Middle East and invade all Arab countries,” she said. “I shaped my views right after the Iraqi Operation Freedom when I realized all of what Saddam told us was a lie. I started to read more and research.”
Idan looked to powerful American female icons as sources of inspiration.
“My first childhood inspiration was Angelina Jolie, I saw her in ‘Tomb Raider’ and I thought, 'This is exactly what I want to be. Smart, courageous and fearless.' Her character name Lara Croft was my nickname during my service with US Forces in Iraq,” Idan said. “I still respect her a lot and her activism around the globe. Then there is Whoopi Goldberg – I loved her sense of humor and her wisdom, and Oprah Winfrey, she taught me so much and I’ve sent a lot of fan mail.”
Indeed, Idan's beliefs were further cemented at age 18 when she scored a job as a linguist and interpreter for the U.S. military in Baghdad and was exposed to the “selfless, courageous and ethical” codes of conduct of service members. That experience later propelled her to study the Israeli Defense Forces, which she has since spoken out in support of, noting the safety procedures and engagement rules routinely missing in media coverage.
She now resides permanently in Los Angeles, Calif., where she founded and continues to run the NGO Humanity Forward. Idan bills the organization as being “committed to building bridges among Muslims and Jews in order to surpass borders and promote reconciliation, tolerance, mutual understanding, and peace.”
Only it hasn’t halted her unwavering outspokenness — rather it is fuel for the fire.
Last June, Idan took her activism to the next level by visiting Gandelsman in Jerusalem on an invitation from the American Jewish Committee – a visit warmly welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and later was hosted by the Los Angeles Consulate of Israel to deliver a speech about the history of Jews in Iraq.
Moreover, the activist, model and musician has continued to use social media to condemn an array of public figures including “Women’s March” organizer Linda Sarsour for “defending terrorism,” as well as Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters for using his star status to damage relations rather than to “bring good people together.”
And while speaking at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva late last month, Idan – who recently took on the role of Ambassador for Peace with the watchdog organization UN Watch – took aim at what she deemed media bias against Israel, which she said includes “false translations” of her statements in Arab media, along with anti-Semitic biases taught across much of the Middle East.
“I’d like to remind Arab countries that today you share more common interests with Israel than the terrorist militias. Negotiating peace for both states isn’t betraying the Arab cause, but a vital step to end conflict and suffering for all,” she told the room of high-ranking diplomats and human rights officials.
Idan took the UN microphone after representatives from the likes of Syria, Qatar, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Venezuela and Pakistan all widely criticized the “state terrorism” advocated by Israel.
Nonetheless, as her quest to forge ties between Muslims and Jews, Arabs and Israelis, goes on, Idan said she hopes other young Iraqi girls will also find the courage to stand up and speak out.
“My message to young Iraqi girls is to believe in your dreams and not to listen to those who tell you that you can’t reach them,” she added. “Being a woman in Iraq is difficult, and I hope you find your hope and strength. Never stop believing and dreaming.”