Ali remembered in Muslim world as voice of change

Hamza Hendawi
Associated Press

Cairo — Of all Muhammad Ali’s travels, his 1964 trip to Egypt was perhaps the most symbolic, bringing him face to face with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had punched above his own weight as a champion of Third World struggles.

Nasser was viewed with suspicion by the United States, but revered across much of Africa and Asia for confronting European colonial powers. For the newly crowned heavyweight champion, being received by one of America’s chief enemies announced his arrival on the global stage as a powerful voice of change.

The boxing genius and revolutionary political views of Ali, who died Friday at age 74, emerged when America’s civil rights movement was in full swing and the Vietnam war raged on, sharply dividing Americans.

The Muslim world was also gripped by upheaval, stemming from the withdrawal of the colonial powers and the onset of the Cold War. Nasser, a popular Arab nationalist and Soviet ally, had emerged as a leading opponent of American “imperialism,” and his fiery speeches touched on themes that would later be embraced by Ali.

Ali’s conversion to Islam won him the support of many across the region. Three years later, his refusal to serve in the U.S. Army in Vietnam — “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” — and his subsequent loss of the world title resonated with Muslims, many of whom saw that conflict as the epitome of America’s global tyranny.

“Muslims wanted a hero to represent them, and Clay was the only Muslim champion… No other Muslim athlete managed to achieve what Clay did … Thus, he was a symbol for Muslims,” said Mohammed Omari, an Islamic law professor in northern Jordan’s Al al-Bayt University.

In a Muslim world with a seemingly infinite number of people called “Mohammed Ali,” the Louisville, Kentucky, native was mostly referred to as Muhammad Ali Clay — ironically retaining one of the “slave” names that he argued so hard and long for people to drop after he became a Muslim.

It was the diversity of the causes embraced by Ali during his lifetime — from the civil rights movement and anti-war activism to global charity work and dealing with Parkinson’s disease — that has won him a large following among a wide range of admirers in the Muslim world.

“The uplifting exuberance of Muhammad Ali will endure long after his passing,” Dubai’s Gulf News, a widely read daily in the United Arab Emirates, said in an editorial, hailing the “lasting political achievements of one of the 20th Century’s greatest sports superstars.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II wrote that Ali “fought hard, not only in the ring, but in life for his fellow citizens and civil rights.”

“The world has lost today a great unifying champion whose punches transcended borders and nations,” Abdullah wrote on his Twitter account. Accompanying his tweet was a photo of Ali, King Hussein, Abdullah’s late father, and U.S. President Gerald Ford — all in tuxedos.

Mohammed Assem Faheem, a three-time youth heavyweight champion in Egypt, mainly saw Ali as a boxing role model.

“When I watched tapes of his fights, I focused on two things: His footwork and defense tactics. I could not copy them, they were too good for me,” said Faheem, 26 and better known by his nickname, Konga.

To Nashaat Nashed, a 55-year-old boxing coach who is also a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, Ali was an inspiration. “God created him to box, not for anything else. I owe it to him that I took up boxing and that I fell in love with the sport.”

Nizam Zayed, 48, a Palestinian handyman at a gym in the West Bank city of Ramallah, recalls watching Ali’s matches on television. “My generation liked Muhammed Ali because he was very good at boxing and because his name was Muhammed Ali and he was a Muslim.”

Pakistan’s cricket legend-turned-politician Imran Khan, writing a series of tweets mourning Ali’s death, described the boxer as the “greatest sportsman of all time” and a man of strong convictions. “Sportsmen have a limited career life span in which they can earn and Ali sacrificed it for his beliefs with courage and conviction.”

In Iraq, which Ali visited in 1990 to secure the release of 15 Americans who had been taken hostage by Saddam Hussein in the wake of his invasion of Kuwait, retired heavyweight boxer Ismail Khalil mourned the “greatest.”

“Today marks the death of a great champion. It is a sad day for the world of boxing. This champion does not represent America only, but the entire Islamic world too.”

Associated Press reporters Karin Laub and Khetam Malkawi in Amman, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, Ahmed Sami in Baghdad and Adam Schreck in Dubai contributed to this report.