The presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump reacted to President Obama’s assertion that Muslims are our sports heroes, questioning “What sports is he talking about, and who?” I’m not interested in engaging in a sports contest, especially with a rich white man with a bad hairpiece. But my admiration for a black Muslim sports hero started a long time ago.
As a youngster growing up in a small village in Egypt. I had only two heroes; Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muhammad Ali.
Nasser made his fame by championing the fight against western imperialism and colonialism in the region, spreading Pan Arabs’ pride. Ali wasn’t just a boxer fighting in the ring but, like Nasser, he was fighting American imperialistic expansionism and its ugly war on the Vietnamese. Even before he converted to Islam and bared the Arabic name in 1964, as a 22-year-old fighter, with a name like Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, he captured my imagination after his epic victory over Sonny Liston in the world heavyweight championship match fifty years ago.
A fighter whose words were sharper than his fist. “I’m the most recognized and loved man that ever lived cuz there weren’t no satellites when Jesus and Moses were around, so people far away in the villages didn’t know about them,” he once said. And he was right, in my small village on the Egyptian delta there was only radio and it was magical. On the night of Ali’s fight, waking up early morning while everyone is asleep at home. The birds are singing outside, the roosters starting their calling routine. Quietly sneaking into the living room, turning on the radio to hear the morning news of Muhammad Ali fights.
Before Al Jazeera and CNN, I had to wait for the early news on the radio where two items were dominating the morning news, the accomplishments of president Gamal Abdel Nasser, our national hero, and the news of Muhammad Ali’s boxing winning streak.
Somehow we expected the young black man to win every time, no mater what the odds were. The young black man was fighting our fights, his victories were our victories. My admiration wasn’t because of his Muslim faith, but because of his social justice faith, his noble stand against war on Vietnam, and as a young black man winning fights against a racist white system. Muhammad Ali was a hero for millions of people around the world for one reason or another, he was winning when it mattered the most.
President Nasser was my first hero, and his hyperbole propaganda of Arab nationalism, war against the west and their war against colored people in the Middle East and Vietnam. Muhammad Ali, the young black man, epitomized that fight.
On a personal level, there were some similarities between Nasser the Egyptian hero and Muhammad Ali the greatest of them all. Both had a great rhetorical skill, anti imperialist fiery speeches. But unlike Nasser, Ali fought his own fights alone, he talked the talk and walked the walk. “It’s not bragging if you can back it up,” he once said.
Nasser’s legacy and pan Arab inspiration was knocked down in the so called Six-Day War of 1967, when the Israeli army overran the overrated Egyptian Army in six days, took Sinai, Golan, Gaza, and the West Bank. Ali’s real legacy started by refusing to go to war to Vietnam in the same year and his willingness to give it all for his principles. Both Nasser and Ali were condemning the wars against colored people abroad.
A lot has been said about Ali the boxer, the fighter, his speed and talent in the ring, but his political and humanitarian stands outside the ring are what makes him the greatest.
“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?” he said. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he superbly added.
Ali used his fame and celebrity status to shed light on the plight of blacks in America before ‘Black Lives Matter’ even mattered.
I was a youngster living in a remote village in Egypt where people consulted with the same fashion designer and prayed at the same mosque and played the same game of soccer. While Coke and Hollywood showed me the flashy, glossy America, Ali showed me the real America, and the struggle of colored Americans. Ali was an inspiration for me to connect to this far place and assured me one day, there, in this strange place you will always have a friend. With the irrationality of Islamophobia that is sweeping America right now, I always count on Ali’s amazing energy and courage to stand strong knowing there are millions of people out there that shared my inspiration with the greatest.
Ali, the only fighter to win the heavyweight championship three times, won 56 fights in his professional career. He spent more than 30 years fighting the meanest fight of his life, Parkinson’s, a disease that hit him in his most talented areas he had, his physical and linguistic dexterity. Muhammad Ali, may Allah bless his soul and take him to a special place, hopefully a sound-proof place, because even in front of god, Ali will always say, “I’m the Greatest.”