By: Austin Luce
A seldom remembered achievement in the life of Muhammad Ali took place ten years after his retirement from professional boxing. In August of 1990, just before the U.S. led coalition entered the First Gulf War in what would be called Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein had taken thousands of foreign civilians hostage, including fifteen Americans living and working in Kuwait. While many of the women and children were allowed to return home, fifteen men were kept as insurance against an American intervention. Ali, already suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease travelled to Iraq independently to negotiate the Americans’ release. Indeed, in November of 1990 he was still one of the most recognizable people in the world. Using his celebrity as a bargaining chip, and his Muslim faith as a commonality, Ali was granted an audience with Hussein. Impressed with Ali’s stature, and fearing greater embarrassment on the world stage, Hussein released all 15 of the hostages unharmed, after less than four months of captivity.
Although Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, was known as a fierce warrior inside the boxing ring, it was his exploits outside of it as a messenger of peace that set him apart. Ali passed away June 3 at the age of 74, during a time when his adopted faith of Islam has been corrupted by some groups calling for violent Jihad. Yet, this author is reminded of how Ali was willing to surrender his life in the name of peace, and urged others to do the same; a major reason America’s war in Vietnam eventually came to a conclusion.
After a three year reign as heavyweight champion of the world (1964-67), Cassius Marcellus Clay, who had converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, was drafted into the United States armed forces. Being a devout Muslim, Ali’s religious beliefs precluded him from participating in any war, and he applied for exemption as a conscientious objector. As his request was denied, Ali was convicted for refusing induction, fined $10,000 (a significant sum for 1967) and sentenced to five years in prison. As a result, he was stripped of his heavyweight title, and banned from boxing, tentative upon official appeal.
At a time when America was so culturally divided, Ali became a symbol for racial equality and the anti-war movement. Famously taking the unpopular stance of asking why he should go overseas to fight when the American people and government would not fight for his liberty at home; he declared “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong… no Vietcong ever lynched me, put dogs on me, or called me a ni**er.” Instead, he said his real fight was against injustice in a country that continued to fail him and his people regarding their human rights. Moreover, why he or anyone else should go fight against people who had not done them any harm, or were not any threat to their country in the first place, was not clear. Ali’s conviction was eventually overturned, and he regained his heavyweight title.
Ali’s message was that of peace, acceptance and understanding; he eventually became the first major American figure to travel to Vietnam (in the 1990s) as part of a goodwill mission, years before U.S.-Vietnamese relations were normalized. It is no wonder then that Ali, a Muslim, nonetheless kept in his inner circle of trainers Angelo Dundee and Bundini Brown (A Catholic and a Jew, respectively). His memorial service on June 10th in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky will be an interfaith service, attended by imams, priests, and rabbis, with foreign leaders such as Recep Erdogan and King Abdullah of Jordan in attendance.
After the September 11th attacks, a frail Ali spoke out against violence and terror. He declared that those who kill in the name of Islam are wrong; and that if he was able (healthy enough) he would do something to stop it. Recently, he responded to Donald Trump’s threats and proposal to ban Muslims from the United States:
“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion. I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”
When this author was born, the most famous and beloved basketball player in the world was Kareem Abdul Jabbar; who, like Ali, a Muslim convert known for his outspokenness and activism. The number one children’s film was Aladdin, a film about a young Muslim man living in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the media’s coverage of terrorist attacks—both in the U.S. and overseas—and of Muslims in general, which is often relegated to stories involving violence and radicalisation, has led many living in the West to associate Islam with terrorism; leading to xenophobia, insecurity, and division. This is precisely what groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda hope for: it helps to validate their message and expand their support base.
However, if there were ten Muhammad Ali’s, this author very much doubts that terror groups’ propaganda would find enough oxygen to survive, as Ali stole every scene he was a part of. More importantly, leaders like Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi never do their own fighting; proselytizing hate and ignorance, they send others to do it for them. A healthy and outspoken Ali would have dwarfed them. Terror groups cheapen human life by asking young men and women to inflict harm on themselves and others. Ali once stopped a total stranger from doing just that: in 1981, a man about to commit suicide by jumping off a window ledge, was approached by Ali, who refused to stop talking to him, until he came down from the ledge.
Ali was, and still is, beloved around the globe; more so than any terror group espousing violence as its central tenet. Killing innocent people is not brave. Going to prison for refusing to do so most definitely is. Muhammad Ali referred to himself as ‘The Greatest’. Through his actions, he proved that he was.
Austin Luce is a graduate student in the MSc War & Psychiatry program at King’s College London.