The Turkish public, regardless of its ideological differences and opinions, mourns Muhammad Ali's death. It is quite surprising. After all, Turks are known for their disagreements on almost everything. Yet, an American Muslim boxer is somehow a uniting voice for them. It is not a new phenomenon either. Back in the 1970s, people in Turkish cities would wake up in the middle of the night to watch Muhammad Ali's matches, according to Orhan Ayhan, a legendary TV sports presenter. "It used to shake the country because a Muslim boxer was becoming a world champion," he told Turkish NTV television couple of years ago.
There are many tales about "the greatest" in Turkey. For example, renowned Turkish politician Dr. Nevzat Yalçıntaş claims that he was the first white person- if there is such title - to hug Ali in London in the 1960s. He told the Turkish press in different interviews that the Islamic Cultural Center in London assigned him to accompany Ali when he was visiting the city: "I met him in Hotel Piccadilly. He cried after I hugged him. He said I was the first white person who did this."
Whether the story is true or not, Ali has been a source of fascination in Turkey and he eventually visited the county in 1976 upon an invitation from the leader of Turkey's then Islamic oriented National Salvation or Milli Selamet Party (MSP), the late Necmettin Erbakan, a confirmation that Islamic oriented circles in Turkish society had more substantial ties with Ali due to their shared values. Hasan Aksay, a minister with the MSP at the time, brokered the trip that took place on Oct. 1, 1977. Aksay told the A Haber TV channel that Ali beat the then American consul-general who was at the airport to escort him. According to Aksay, Ali said, "You mistreat us in our own country and welcome us here?" Ali stayed in the city for 24 hours only but drew thousands of people both to the airport and then Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet Square where he gave a speech. During the trip, Ali announced for the first time that he would retire from boxing to serve Islam. Erbakan, the mastermind of the visit, told the press that Ali visited Istanbul on a sacred Friday and put his gloves aside. "He wore his sword for Islamic jihad," he added.
Ali attended Friday prayers and afterward addressed the crowd. A veteran who served in Turkey's War of Independence presented his medal to him and fired his gun in the air to celebrate his presence, according to a comprehensive report about the visit published by the Türkiye daily last week. "Ali later told journalists that he was startled when the old gentleman fired his gun," the report said. Turkish newspapers published pictures of him in a pink suit, while he was crying due to the crowd's overwhelming support. It is very possible that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was also there because he was the Istanbul chairman of the MSP's youth branch at the time.
The visit also revealed the deep divisions inside the country in terms of political polarization. Leftist and mainstream newspapers searched for scandals because Ali was in Istanbul in solidarity with his Muslim brothers, rather than sportsmanship.
According to Türkiye daily's account, Turkish newspapers did not spare the space he deserved because Ali was in Istanbul upon the invitation of an Islamic-oriented party. For example, columnist Örsan Öymen from the center-left flagship Milliyet despised Ali. In an article, "With a boxer's brain," he said that people only knew of Ali's physicality and nothing about his mental faculties. "We only know his fist and mouth," he said. Another columnist from the same daily, Burhan Felek, also criticized Ali for not serving in the American military. He depicted him as an untrustworthy clown. Nonetheless, this awkward resistance eventually faded away. No one remembers it anymore.
One way or another, Ali proved to the whole world that he was not afraid of speaking the truth he believed in. As Erdoğan said, his powerful voice led a lot of people to convert to Islam. He served Islam in such a unique and respectable way that no one could deny his righteousness. Even today's secular and leftist branches of Turkish society love him. This explains very well why Erdoğan felt obliged to attend Ali's funeral.