“I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” Muhammad Ali
When I first saw the island of Gorée on the coast of Senegal, west of Africa, and heard the gory stories of how slaves were transported from here to the new continent America, what I felt was a heart-wrenching sorrow.
For those who love cinema and follow life and history through films, I will mention “Amistad,” a film that tells of the life and death struggle of African slaves on a ship en route to America, and they can remember the rest.
Millions of black people were sent to America as slaves, under conditions which at least half of them would perish on the way and actually, they were ones who were left at the bottom of the bricks placed on top of each other in the “making” of America as a state, as an idea, as a country.
They all became Christian. Just like the parts of the black continent colonized by Western Christian countries also became Christian.
This has always felt tragic to me. Similar to English being spoken commonly in British colony India being positive in one aspect but tragic in another, the Pakistani waiters serving at a dinner given in the honor of guests at the Pakistan Lahore Governor's house, with their elbow-length white gloves looking like British butlers being painful to see, some Africans, almost all African-Americans becoming Christian, has felt just as extreme and saddening. Not because I do not consider Christianity as a religion, but because it seems strange for the oppressed to look like their oppressors, talk like their oppressors, appear and believe like their oppressors.
This is why it is a revolution for Muhammad Ali to have chosen Islam and proclaim it. It is extremely political and a deep act of rejection aimed at both racism and the codes of colonization. His confidence, speaking with superiority, having attitude and intimidation salved the pains of the decades of oppression experienced by African-Americans. As a matter of fact, even the oppressed outside the US were increasingly happy with the punches he pounded on his opponent.
What Muhammad Ali did was more than simply change religion and reject joining the Vietnam War by raising the anti-black racism issue in the US. What he did was to wave the flag of rebellion against slavery, submission and injustice.
By refusing to go to the Vietnam War, he did for the blacks something similar to what Rosa Parks did by refusing to give her seat to a white person who wanted her to get up.
He acted courageously by announcing he accepted Islam at a time when both Muslims and blacks were subjected to racism and discrimination, risking facing double discrimination.
This is why he became a legend. This is why when he swung his fist at his opponent in the ring, TVs were switched on in all corners of the world and in particular in the southern hemisphere, at the crack of dawn, amid slogans such as, “Hit him, Muhammad Ali, for the children in orphanages, for the waifs and strays, for the oppressed tortured by tyrants, hit him.” Because Islam is the religion of all of humanity, but mostly those who have been victimized, the aggrieved, outlandish and oppressed.
This is why Muhammad Ali became more than only a former heavyweight boxing champion, he became the flag-bearer of Islam… In all continents, including Africa.
It is obvious that the relationship model Muhammad Ali defined with statements such as “I am great, I am strong,” with both the religion he chose and which were generally considered as arrogance, was not the oppressed-oppressor relationship, the superior-subordinate relationship, it was the “equality relationship” established at eye level.
Muhammad Ali was loved so much not only because of his punches or his verbal knockout skills, but because he was the brave representative of the demand for equality for the oppressed.
A Muslim whose place is hard to fill has passed away.
May God have mercy on him, may he rest in peace…