The dramatic shifts of fortune experienced by Muhammad Ali, who died on June 3, reflects the chequered fortunes of the minorities he represented. It requires effort for contemporary mindsets to visualise the Civil Rights era of the 1960s where black Americans were fighting not just for social, economic and political equality, but most fundamentally, the right to lead lives with human dignity. Ali was among the most colourful champions of equality in a now nearly forgotten era of black liberation. He came to prominence on the world stage after a surprise victory against reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, when seven to one odds were given against Ali. He earned the anger and ire of the white public when he publicly announced his conversion to Islam, and renounced his “slave name” of Cassius Clay.
Ali’s status as world champion provided him with the platform to express and articulate the sentiments of the oppressed black minority regarding the Vietnam war. He refused to “drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam” while the black people in Louisville “are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights”. He was well aware that his protests would put “my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars”. But he was prepared to pay the price for his principles: “The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.” He confronted those who accused him of cowardice by linking them with the oppression of the brown races abroad, along with that of the blacks within the US: “If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.”
The words of Ali posed a deep and existential threat to a state undergoing a transformation from the democratic principles of majority rule to the Machiavellian rule by fear. According to Machiavelli, the main weapon of public control is the ability of the state to define the enemy. This method remains effective today in frightening the public into spending of trillions on fighting terror, while budgets for social welfare programmes are being slashed at a time of record unemployment, homelessness and hunger. Ali redefined the enemy in a powerful punch to the establishment. His message was an inspiration to the oppressed throughout the world: “… Get used to me — black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own.” He was duly punished for transgressing beyond the boundaries of acceptable dissent, stripped of his championship title, and stopped from pursuing his career in the prime of his life. Though eventually the Supreme Court exonerated him, he paid a heavy price, and was banned from boxing for five years at his absolute prime.
The global outpouring of love and respect bears witness to the multidimensional and exceptional qualities of Ali. His strength of character is shown by the difficult choices he made in challenging situations, renouncing popularity for principles. His daughters described their father’s perseverance and strength in handling his prolonged Parkinson’s disease as extraordinary and an inspiration to those around him. He used to say that his disease was a reminder that Allah, and not Ali, was the Greatest. In 2002, he refused the honour of a star on the world famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. “I bear the name of our beloved Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), and it is impossible that I allow people to trample over his name,” he said. In a break with tradition, the star was mounted on the wall instead of the pavement at the Kodak Theatre entertainment complex. It seems appropriate to conclude with his inspiring message, suitable for the spirit of Ramazan. Every morning he rose at five to pray and to study the Holy Quran. “Everything I do now, I do to please Allah,” he said around 1990. “I conquered the world, and it didn’t bring me true happiness. The only true happiness comes from honouring and worshipping God.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2016.