He was honoured by the likes of Donald Trump and George W Bush towards the end of his life. But that shouldn’t erase the radical and flawed history of a celebrity like no other, writes Michael Brull.
Let me tell you the story of a young radicalised Muslim from America. When he was about 17-years-old, he first encountered a radical sect with an unorthodox – some would even say extreme – version of Islam. Two years later, he visited one of its mosques, and started reading its literature. He said it “really shook me up”. Indeed, this was the “first time I ever felt spiritual in my life”.
The extremist sect that he joined not only urged him to change his name, but picked out his new name for him. It taught a bizarre theology developed by the founder of the sect, Wallace Fard. Yacub’s History told the story of “the genetic plot of an evil ‘Big Head’ scientist named Yacub, who lived thousands of years ago. A member of the exalted tribe of Shabazz, Yacub nevertheless used his scientific skills to produce genetic mutations that culminated in the creation of the white race. Although the naturally crafty and violent whites were banished to the caves of Caucasus, they ultimately achieved control over the entire earth.”
The Original People, Fard taught, subsequently “’went to sleep’ mentally and spiritually.” Black Americans weren’t African, “but members of the lost tribe of Shabazz, stolen by traders from the Holy City of Mecca 379 years ago”. The task of this radical sect was to “bring into consciousness the ‘lost-found’ Asiatic black man from his centuries-long slumber.”
Having joined an extremist sect of radical Islam, Muhammad turned on America and Israel. Touring the Middle East, he announced that “the United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism.” After visiting Palestinian refugee camps, he announced, “In my name and the name of all Muslims in America, I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.”
Some accused this radical extremist of anti-Semitism, but he didn’t back down. He later explained that “the entire power structure is Zionist. They control America; they control the world. They are really against the Islam religion. So whenever a Muslim does something wrong, they blame the religion.” He later campaigned to free hundreds of suspected terrorists from detention, calling them “Muslim brothers”.
Some readers will have realised by this point that the person I’m speaking of is Muhammad Ali. As left-wing sports writer Dave Zirin commented, “There has never been an athlete more reviled by the mainstream press, more persecuted by the US government, or more defiantly beloved throughout the world than Muhammad Ali.” The man who he was is being forgotten, as western politicians and celebrities offer their praise to a sanitised and safer version of Ali. Even his opposition to the war on Vietnam 40 years ago is being assimilated into respectable opinion, 40 years after the war is lost and the Cold War is over.
Remember that back in the ‘60s, communists were demonised just as jihadi terrorists are demonised today. Yet Ali resolutely refused to recognise them as his enemy, defiantly rejecting the draft, arguing that his real enemy was at home: “Shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They never put no dogs on me.” He said that “You my opposer when I want freedom, you my opposer when I want justice, you my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, and you won’t even stand up for me at home.”
Ignoring the rhetoric of liberating the Vietnamese, he bluntly dismissed the war as racist imperialism:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over…. The real enemy of my people is 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.
Today, obeying his religion over the commands of the law would be considered #CreepingSharia, among other things. And just as Vietnam was controversial in ‘60s, so was the question of Palestine in the ‘70s. Yet Ali expressed his solidarity with Palestinian refugees when he was one of the most famous men on the planet, at a time when that support was considerably more controversial than it is today.
Can you imagine a celebrity of today speaking out in any comparable way? When they do speak out, American celebrities usually pick safe and unthreatening causes. When they do use their influence, it’s usually to endorse a particular brand of clothes.
Few political issues today are more likely to make a western progressive maintain an awkward silence than the question of Palestine. When we think of celebrities of today, few have shown comparable courage. Take the case of Rihanna. During the 2014 Gaza massacre, Rihanna posted a tweet saying “#FreePalestine”. Within 8 minutes she deleted the tweet, and got word out that it was an accident. She then posted a follow-up tweet: “Let’s pray for peace and a swift end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict! Is there any hope?” In 2015, Rihanna released a video featuring sexualised violence, to critical acclaim at her courage and willingness to court controversy.
To his credit, Zayn Malik didn’t back down after expressing support for Palestinians during the massacre. However, Wikipedia informs me that Zayn left One Direction within a year, and since then has avoided expressing any political opinions.
Or if you want to understand how Waleed Aly made it into the mainstream, consider AIJAC’s review of his book on what is “dividing Islam and the West”. It notes that Aly “does not discuss Israeli-Palestinian issues at any length”, and he “implies that he accepts the legitimacy of Israel and Zionism.”
If Muhammad Ali had been born in the ‘90s, many of those paying tribute to him in Australia today would be denouncing him as an anti-Semitic pro-terrorist hate preacher. If he was Australian, ASIO would be watching him, and chasing informers to track his every word and movement. Tony Abbott would go on Alan Jones’s radio program to canvas ways to ban such hate preachers from Australia, and right-thinking liberals at the ABC would be professing their horror at his staunch refusal to condemn the official enemy of the day. Deep thinkers would be sought out to explain why Ali couldn’t be more moderate, and how Islam should be reformed.
Was Ali flawed? Absolutely. One of his greatest regrets was turning on his friend Malcolm X as he was expelled from the Nation of Islam, and then killed. Ali himself left the Nation in 1975, becoming a Sunni Muslim, and later a Sufi.
Remembering Ali as flawed is not about criticising him. It is remembering that even the greats are human, and have flaws. When people are whitewashed and sanitised and presented as flawless saints, the problem is that activists of today are then measured against those impossible standards, and invariably found wanting. Everyone who shows any courage will be found “problematic” in some way or other. Yet this doesn’t cancel out the good in their lives that they do.
Muhammad Ali was a man of almost supernatural charm. He wanted to be remembered as a leader and champion of his people. He was indeed a champion for oppressed people around the world, offering them a sense of pride and dignity. We shouldn’t forget Ali was brave and honourable, just as we shouldn’t forget how pretty he was.
Note: quotes about Fard and the Nation of Islam are from Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm X.
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