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Palestinians mourn boxing legend and their greatest supporter

June 4, 2016 at 1:32 pm

Boxing legend Mohammed Ali is dead. Known universally as “The Greatest”, his loss will be marked by millions of people of faith and no faith around the world, but Palestinians will be among the chief mourners because in their eyes he was the greatest fighter against Zionism.

To show his solidarity with their struggle he visited Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon. “In my name and the name of all Muslims in America,” he told a press conference after his retirement from the ring in 1974, “I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.”

The world’s best known sports personality even went to the Zionist state in 1985 to demand the release of around 700 Lebanese Muslims detained in the notorious Atlit Detention Camp during Israel’s illegal occupation of Lebanon. This was one battle that the Israelis did not want and so the politicians in Tel Aviv refused to meet the fearless icon when he wanted to discuss the release of his “Muslim brothers”.

Ali admitted once that he didn’t read books, but he had enough intelligence to distinguish between the political ideology of Zionism which was founded in 1897 and the great faith of Judaism. He illustrated this during a visit in 1980 to India where he was promoting the campaign to boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow after Afghanistan had been invaded by Russia. “Religion ain’t [sic] bad,” he replied when asked about religion, “it’s people who are bad. You know 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 blames [sic] the religion.”

Howard Cohen, better known as the celebrated American sports commentator Howard Cosell, engaged in lots of playful banter with the sporting superstar. Unlike many journalists, he called Ali by his Islamic name immediately after he announced to the world that he no longer wanted to be known by his “slave name” Cassius Clay.

In 1996, Ali made a surprise appearance to ignite the flame at the start of the Olympic Games in Atlanta. “My mother was a Baptist,” he had said beforehand. “She believed Jesus was the son of God, and I don’t believe that. But even though my mother had a religion different from me, I believe that, on Judgment Day, my mother will be in heaven. There are Jewish people who lead good lives. When they die, I believe they’re going to heaven. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, if you’re a good person you’ll receive God’s blessing. Muslims, Christians and Jews all serve the same God. We just serve him in different ways. Anyone who believes in One God should also believe that all people are part of one family. God created us all. And all people have to work to get along.” This was a message he used to pass on frequently.

Within hours of hearing of his passing, the human rights and Palestine solidarity organisation BDS South Africa joined the ranks of mourners by issuing a statement through Kwara Kekana. “Ali,” she declared, “is an inspiration for those of us fighting for justice — be it in the struggle against racial injustice, economic exploitation or Israeli Apartheid.”

Not only did the world’s most famous 20th century Muslim deal knockout blows in the boxing ring, but he was also just as invincible taking on injustice everywhere using his sharp tongue and wit to expose hypocrisy and double-standards. Little wonder that he became a symbol for Black Liberation during the 1960s when he refused to be drafted into the US Army for religious reasons. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali said famously. “No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.”

He had no time for Islamophobes either, and after the horrific events of 9/11 he was asked by journalists how he felt about sharing the same faith as the Muslim hijackers. Quick as a flash, he retorted to the largely white media, “How do you feel about Hitler sharing yours?”

My personal memories of Muhammad Ali, apart from watching blurred black and white images of his fights on our old TV at home, was when he paid a four-day visit to my native North East back in 1977.

The “Louisiana Lip” as he was known affectionately, went to the small seaside town of South Shields to help raise funds for a boys’ club at the suggestion of local boxing legend Johnny Walker. There were chaotic scenes as thousands turned up at Newcastle Airport to meet Ali; it was all in vain, as he had missed his flight from London.

It didn’t really matter, though. A couple of days later even more Geordies packed the streets of Jarrow and South Shields to see Ali pass by in an open-top bus on his way to have his marriage blessed in the town’s mosque which served — as it still does today — a large Yemeni community.

The Muslims received him like a long lost son. A few days earlier the region had been visited by the Queen as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations, but Her Majesty was upstaged, in numbers and enthusiasm, by the appearance of the world heavyweight champ.

There is no doubt that we have lost a giant, the likes of whom we are unlikely to see again. The Palestinians, meanwhile, have lost one of their greatest supporters.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.