Muhammad Ali: A Social Justice Icon

Salman Rasheed


The writer is a Karachi-based research analyst and political consultant.

June 3rd marks the fourth death anniversary of Muhammad Ali, ‘The Greatest’ boxer of all times.  However, his fame also came from outside of the boxing ring in the fight for racial equality and social justice.
Muhammad Ali is one of the few athletes who truly transcended his sport and became a social justice icon. Malcolm X was one of the greatest American Muslims that walked the face of America and the world.
Officially converting to Islam after winning the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in February 1964 was a huge shock for America at that time. However, this would be nothing when Muhammad Ali decided to refuse service in the US Army in 1967 during the Vietnam war.  His opposition to the Vietnam war led to his vilification among the American public and establishment.  Furthermore, it cost him his world heavyweight championship and banned from boxing for three years.
Standing up for his religious beliefs of not fighting in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali sacrificed three years of his boxing prime and millions of dollars.  Ali could have dodged the draft like many young Americans did at that time and run to Canada but he didn’t and faced his critics/haters.  Contrast this to our so-called Pakistani “Mandelas” running away to foreign countries to avoid facing accountability on corruption charges and crying ‘political victimization’. 
Muhammad Ali’s makes it clear in this quote about his defiance to the American establishment and opposition to the Vietnam war:
“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. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that taking such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. I have said it once and I will say it again. 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.”
This single bold act transformed Ali from an animated, narcissistic boxer to a man who stood for social justice and racial equality. Muhammad Ali used his time away from boxing to speak out against the war on college campuses.
By publicly opposing the Vietnam war, Ali encouraged others who were hesitant to speak out like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr King opposed American involvement in the Vietnam War but decided not to go public to avoid the interference with civil rights goals that criticism of President Johnson’s policies might have created.  However, inspired by the courage of Muhammad Ali, Dr King finally agreed to publicly oppose the war as opposition was growing among the American public.
Muhammad Ali’s defiance to the Vietnam war was in the best traditions of Islam, as the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAW) taught us to speak a word of truth in the face of the oppressor.
Acting on his conscience made Ali into the archetypal model of the politically conscious athlete, and his impact was felt from Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists in protest on the 1968 Olympics medal stand in Mexico City to outfielder Curt Flood’s 1969 challenge against baseball’s reserve clause, which finally led to the free-agent era. Muhammad Ali’svalour remains an inspiration to anyone acting on principle in defiance of prevailing public opinion today.
In the war against hunger, Muhammad Ali through his charitable foundations provided 232 million meals to the hungry around the world.  In addition, he delivered medical supplies to countries like Kenya. Ali recognized his place of privilege and knew many others in the world were less well off than him and decided to help them as much as he could.
Even in the post-9/11 world, Muhammad continued to speak out against Islamophobia and racism.  In an interview after the 9-11 tragedy, Ali said, “What’s really hurting me, the name Islam is involved, and Muslim is involved and causing trouble and starting hate and violence. … Islam is not a killer religion. … Islam means peace, I couldn’t just sit home and watch people label Muslims as the reason for this problem.”
Even in the age of Donald Trump, Muhammad Ali spoke out back in December 2015 against the Muslim ban proposed by then presidential candidate Donald Trump, “Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, 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.”
‘The “murderers”’ he was referring to were the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino and other incidents carried out by violent Islamic extremists.
The life of Muhammad Ali teaches us to not forget where we came from and always stand up for what we believe in.  The eulogy by Rabbi Michael Lerner at the funeral of Muhammad Ali in Louisville Kentucky instructs all of us on how to honor Ali’s legacy as a fighter for social justice:
“So, I want to say, how do we honour Muhammad Ali? And the answer is the way to honour Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today. That means us, everyone here and everyone listening. It’s up to us to continue the ability to speak truth to power. We must speak out. Refuse to follow the path of conformity to the rules of the game in life. We must refuse to follow the path of conformity.”
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