The influence of an individual over their society can be enormous. Born into a country where racism against African-Americans was rife, Muhammed Ali announced his conversion to Islam following his world heavyweight boxing championship win. His startling and provocative attitude was present in his personal life as well as boxing.
In his youth, Ali earned a gold medal in Europe, yet when he was not allowed into a restaurant because of the color of his skin, he threw the medal into the river. His Muslim American friends who knew him well summarized Ali's life as follows: "He was always alone, as he achieved all his goals by himself. Without the support of blacks, American Muslims or family wealth; Ali achieved an unprecedented career through his intelligence, diligence and character."
During the Vietnam War, while young people were drafted into the army, Ali refused to join the war and declared that he had no problem with the people of Vietnam. As punishment for his dissident behavior, the American courts withdrew all of his titles and the uproar caused great injury to his prestige. Yet after passing through a period of personal depression and earning an income participating in debates at universities, he succeeded in taking back all his rights and titles following a long legal struggle.
Muslim people all over the world, living lives devastated by Western colonialism, felt proud when Ali converted to Islam after becoming the world heavyweight champion. His brilliant success as a boxer and his sympathy for the dispossessed, be they black, Muslim, or Vietnamese, inspired oppressed people all over the world. In the 1970s, Anatolian people who barely knew about the United States woke up in the early hours of the morning to watch Ali's boxing matches, and prayed for his success as if they were praying for all Muslim people. No doubt his boxing matches were watched with the same fervor and blessing in all Muslim countries.
Muhammed Ali was always a leader. He hated no one and expressed his ideas without any cowardice. Sometimes he roared like a lion, but his voice was that of leadership and not of hate. Lighting the Olympic torch while suffering from Parkinson's, he continued to remain a brilliant role model for the eternal struggle of humanity. Never retiring into his shell, Ali remained a leader in every stage of his life.
Showing no fear of the possible reaction, Ali met with Turkish Muslim leaders and prayed in the Blue Mosque together with Cemal Kamacı, the Turkish boxer and Necmettin Erbakan, the influential Muslim political leader, at a time when Turkish politics was particularly volatile. In a similar vein, the emotional meeting between Ali and the wise President of Bosnia Herzegovina Alija Izetbegovic demonstrated their Islamic brotherhood, without any need for the ties of blood or material interest.
While Donald Trump aims to turn away Muslims, Mexicans and all foreigners from the US, the death of Muhammed Ali has led the world to look back on his unique leadership; one which strongly reflects the cosmopolitan and multiethnic unity of the United States. Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will participate in his funeral, while Bill Clinton shall make a funeral speech, as Ali's will dictated. Clinton shall announce: "Muhammed Ali calls us back to our founding principles, to American pluralism." May God bless his soul.
About the author
İhsan Aktaş is Chairman of the Board of GENAR Research Company. He is an academic at the Department of Communication at Istanbul Medipol University.