I WAS greatly saddened by the news of Muhammad Ali’s passing. I am not particularly a fan of boxing and I was never privileged to meet him personally, but I recognize greatness and sincere goodness when I see it. Ali fought all his life. Growing up in the segregated south he was victimized by poverty and racism during an era when restrooms were designated ‘Whites only’.
He channelled his frustrations in the ring gaining a place on the US Olympic team and a subsequent Gold Medal before soaring to the heights of his profession entrancing the world with abundant self-confidence, poems and dances. “In the ring I can stay until I’m old and grey, because I know how to hit and dance away,” he said. He had the gift of being able to lift spirits and make us laugh with him.
Muhammad Ali was a champ in more ways than one. The man born as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr, would boast of being the greatest — and he actually was. A fierce opponent in the ring, he was a proponent of non-violence outside it. He used his celebrity status to champion the civil rights movement for which he emerged as one of its icons. He stood up against the government refusing to fight in Vietnam risking imprisonment and the end of his boxing career. “I got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” he reasoned. His principles always came first no matter what sacrifices he was forced to make to stick to them.
He did more than embrace Islam, he lived his life according to its tenets. Following his pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah in 1972, he vowed to dedicate his life preparing “to meet God” by giving to the poor, promoting unity and working for peace and in 1998 he was appointed by the United Nations as a Peace Messenger. These were promises he kept even when he was stricken with debilitating Parkinson’s disease.
America has lost a son and the loss of this inspirational figure is being felt far from its shores. I was gratified to see just how much he was appreciated not only by ordinary folk or fellow athletes or celebrities, but also by world leaders.
Former US president Bill Clinton, who gave a eulogy at Muhammad Ali’s memorial ceremony said, “We watched him grow from the brash self-confidence of youth and success into a manhood full of religious and political convictions that led him to make tough choices and live with the consequences.”
King Abdullah II of Jordan praised him, saying, “He fought hard, not only in the ring, but in life for his fellow citizens and civil rights”. King Abdullah was the only Arab leader to travel to Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky in order to pay tribute to the boxing great in person and pay his respects to his family. “The world has lost today a great unifying champion whose punches transcend borders and nations,” he said.
While I am grateful to Jordan’s monarch for his exemplary compassion, I am disappointed that all other Arab heads of state stayed away and as far as I can tell, none other than the King sent their condolences to his loved ones.
What has upset me even more is the fact that while American and European television networks devoted days of airtime worth many millions of dollars to this unique human being, philanthropist, standard-bearer for Islam and supporter of the Palestinian struggle, who once travelled to Israel to secure the release of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in occupied south Lebanon, the coverage of most Arab channels was minimal.
I spent hours channel surfing between Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and others to know more about his life, but could find little of significance on any Arabic-language network. Shame on us! Shame on us for not giving Muhammad Ali in the arms of his maker the recognition he deserves. He was not an Arab, true, but he transcended nationality and race through the diffusion of his principles, care for those less fortunate and his honourable stances. In the eyes of Arabic TV editors, the death of some entertainers, whom I could name but do not wish to be disrespectful to their memory, merit far more airtime.
I believe that if he had remained healthy and able to communicate with ease, he would have been instrumental in bringing together people of all faiths. I was struck by the powerful eulogy delivered at Ali’s memorial service by one of his closest friends, Rabbi Michael Lerner, who rightfully received a standing ovation.
Speaking as a representative of the liberal-progressive American Jewish community, the Rabbi said, “We will not tolerate politicians or anyone else putting down Muslims or blaming Muslims for a few people.”
He slammed the Israeli government for oppressing Palestinians. “Everyone is equally precious and that means the Palestinian people as well as all other people on the planet,” he said. Like Ali, Rabbi Lerner was also indicted by the federal government for his principles. He praised his friend for standing up to an immoral war, saying, ‘No, I won’t go’.
On a planet that is becoming increasingly divided where there is a growing tendency to be suspicious of the other and where xenophobia, bigotry and racism is flourishing, what if there were more who thought like Ali and Rabbi Lerner; people who adhered to their respective faiths but were willing to reach out to people of other religions. If everyone followed their lead by showing tolerance and advocating for peace, there would be no sectarian conflicts and no US presidential candidate would be able to garner votes on the back of politics of hate.
I will leave you with words straight from Ali’s lips: “I know where I’m going and I know the truth and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” He has never been as free as he is now. May he rest in peace!
By Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor