I doubt many would have been caught off-guard by the death of Muhammad Ali. Uniquely famous and in obvious decline for so long, our thoughts and responses were well rehearsed. Who didn’t know what they thought about Muhammad Ali?
I was prepared for some level of ignorance from non fight-fans and a fair amount of shallow hagiography from those to whom Ali was but a poster with a quote to hang next to Marilyn Monroe or Bruce Lee. And I found it. But it took Mehdi Hasan to be the first to openly spin nonsense in service of an agenda.
In a segment for Al Jazeera’s Reality Check, called Let’s Not Whitewash Muhammad Ali’s Legacy, Hasan did what made him famous and fired out illogicality just rapidly enough so that a solitary exposure allows you to miss how unsoundly he stitched his thesis together. Watching it a second time forces you to check the reality that Mehdi Hasan is allowed to make television programs. It’s a bizarre segment which makes very little sense on its own terms and even less if one happens to know the first thing about the subject.
The gist of his 3 minutes is that Ali’s legacy was being ‘whitewashed’ and much of the praise for him from ‘the establishment’ was insincere. Hasan makes his case by whitewashing Ali’s legacy. He said:
The death of my hero, your hero, Muhammad Ali, has rightly dominated global news headlines. Tributes have poured in from presidents, sports stars and celebrities worldwide, liberals and conservatives alike have lined up to sing his praises.
Call me a cynic but sorry, I can’t believe that all of it is truly heartfelt and genuine.
Think about it, if a top black athlete today converted to Islam and then declared he wouldn’t, quote, “help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters’ because his real enemy was at home he would be denounced as a traitor, as anti-American. If that top black athlete today called for reparations saying the US government should admit its guilt over slavery and take $25bn from its defence budget and build houses for black Americans, he’d be dismissed as a divisive crackpot.
If that top black athlete today declared his, quote, “support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders”, he’d annoy a lot of top politicians and might even be labelled an antisemite. But those are the exact things that Ali did say.
And remember, back when he was saying this stuff, he was reviled too. He was attacked and demonised, “millions hated Ali”, top sports writers called him a “punk” and a “white man’s burden”, the NSA tapped his phone, yet today he’s lauded by the same types of people who slammed him in the 60’s and 70’s
“Think about it”? If Hasan had thought about it he’d realise what a complete red-herring this imaginary sportsman is. The claim is that if a man did today what Ali did 40-50 years ago he would be slammed. Hasan then goes on to say that 40-50 years ago Ali was ‘slammed’. There is no inconsistency here.
Let us assume for now what Hasan says is correct. What purpose is served by this imaginary sportsman other than confusion? Perhaps he did think about it and it’s merely to allow Hasan to play on his constant trope of victimhood for today’s Muslims.
But would a sportsman be slammed by those in power for becoming a Muslim? I don’t think so. For supporting Palestine? Not really, it’s par for course with celebrities. Calling for slavery reparations? That’s no great social crime either. For disagreeing with a war? Possibly in that tone, and rightfully, but plenty of the great and good spoke against Iraq. They gave Fahrenheit 9/11 a Palme d’Or. For refusing to be inducted? Probably, much less than back then though, and when the war becomes increasingly unpopular, as Vietnam did, it wouldn’t be career ending.
It’s a fair assumption that Hasan’s examples of Ali’s behaviour are ones Hasan approves of, considering how Hasan chooses only these rather than the many other things Ali said and did which he really was ‘slammed’ for.
Ali didn’t just ‘convert to Islam’. He joined the Nation of Islam. For Hasan to miss that distinction is extraordinary, unless is he is deliberately doing so. It is likely to be deliberate as Hasan is well versed in such distinctions. He is the first to talk of orthodoxy in Islam when he is assuring us that ISIS have little to do with his religion.
In his article How Islamic Are Islamic State?, Hasan explains how they “are using religion to advance a political vision, rather than using politics to advance a religious vision.” Does this not also describe the black nationalism of The Nation?
Hasan uses the fact that jihadists don’t know religion too well. One of his most well worn examples is that some jihadists bought book Islam for Dummies. Have you heard Ali in the early days explaining what the Koran says?
Hasan thinks that some jihadists going to a strip bar also means that the religion isn’t the important factor for them. Surely the recorded adultery of Elijah Muhammad and Ali would work in the same way?
Also from his essay he says the following to establish that there is orthodoxy:
Contrary to a lazy conventional wisdom which suggests that a 1,400-year-old faith with more than a billion adherents has no hierarchy, “Islam has its leadership, its universities, its muftis and its academies…
The Nation aren’t ISIS or anything close but Hasan is being inconsistent.
‘Heterodox’ barely does justice to The Nation’s difference from more orthodox schools of Islam. It believed African-Americans were Allah’s chosen people, that its founder was the Messiah of the Jews and the Mahdi, and that Elijah Muhammad was a divine prophet. After the Farrakhan schism, its members were encouraged to study Scientology’s dianetics. In light of his previous arguments it is odd that Hasan ignores all of this.
Muhammed Ali joined a segregationist, racially nationalist group. And they were a fairly nasty bunch. That is why the NSA tapped his phone. That is why he was ‘slammed’.
Like Malcolm X, before he was murdered by the Nation, Ali drifted from the original teachings and converted to a more orthodox form of Sunni Islam and then into Sufism. He ceased to be ‘slammed’ for such associations. But these facts do nothing to advance Hasan’s tropes of victimhood and Islamophobia, so they are avoided.
Hasan suggested that these days Ali “might even be labelled an antisemite”. Well, Ali was an antisemite. In an interview with India Today he said:
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 blame the religion.”
And with David Frost he said:
…all Jews and gentiles are devils.
Did Hasan not know that Ali also said these things?
I’m sure Hasan has no objections to racially or religiously mixed relationships, so perhaps he was unaware that Ali said the following in an interview:
Ali:…But nobody touches our women, white or black. Put a hand on a Muslim sister and you are to die. You may be a white or black man in an elevator with a Muslim sister and if you pat her on the behind, you’re supposed to die right there.
Playboy: You’re beginning to sound like a carbon copy of a white racist. Let’s get it out front: Do you believe that lynching is the answer to interracial sex?
Ali: A black man should be killed if he’s messing with a white woman. And white men have always done that. They lynched niggers for even looking at a white woman; they’d call it reckless eyeballing and bring out the rope. Raping, patting, mischief, abusing, showing our women disrespect—a man should die for that. And not just white men—black men, too. We will kill you, and the brothers who don’t kill you will get their behinds whipped and probably get killed themselves if they let it happen and don’t do nothin’ about it. Tell it to the President—he ain’t gonna do nothin’ about it. Tell it to the FBI: We’ll kill anybody who tries to mess around with our women. Ain’t nobody gonna bother them.
Playboy: And what if a Muslim woman wants to go out with non-Muslim blacks—or white men, for that matter?
Ali: Then she dies. Kill her, too.
This isn’t an obscure quote. David Remnick used that extract in his much lauded Ali biography, King of the World, and Hasan quotes Remnick in his segment. I would expect Hasan to have read the definitive book about his ‘hero’.
More from Hasan:
As one commentator pointed out that throughout US history, white Americans have toned down the life stories of radical people of colour so they can celebrate them as they want them to be, not as they were. But the inconvenient truth for establishment types now jumping on the Ali bandwagon, is that he was a radical, a revolutionary, a proud Black Muslim American, who railed against both domestic racism and foreign wars.
And look, I’m not saying it’s not a good thing that so many powerful people have either changed their views on Ali and what he stood for, or pretended not to notice what he stood for. Nor am I saying they’re all hypocrites. No, all I want is a little more consistency and a little less whitewashing of history.
Ali didn’t just rail against domestic racism in the 60’s and 70’s, he also strongly advocated it.
Now imagine if Hasan’s imaginary Black Sportsman has said all the other things Ali had. Would Hasan not slam him? Why wouldn’t he? Who then is doing the whitewashing here? Who is toning down the life story of a person of colour to celebrate them as they want them to be? Physician, heal thyself!
Hasan is the hypocrite, not the ‘establishment types’. The inconsistency is his own. If you’ve read praise of Ali from somebody who does not share his views from the 60’s and 70’s, it is not because they have whitewashed him, it is because they have forgiven him for some and agreed to disagree with the rest.
To best understand this, ask what is the main difference between the imaginary sportsman today and Ali from 40-50 years ago? About 40-50 years of subsequent living.
As Remnick wrote in the same New Yorker piece Hasan got his “Millions hated Ali” quote:
But in recent decades, as Parkinson’s disease began to overwhelm his gifts for movement and speech, and as the country’s attitudes changed, Ali became a focus of almost universal affection.
Muhammad Ali was a complicated man. His fighting years were a maelstrom of bashfulness in conflict with braggadocio, humility with arrogance, insecurities beaten down with displays of supreme confidence, and a bitter and offensive racism contrasted against his warmth and kindness to people of all stripes. He was independent and irrepressible while also being ripe for manipulation by his Nation cult.
What he ‘stood for’, what was real and what wasn’t, which was maintained and which was abandoned, these are things nobody can completely know. But what they were in 2016 were not all the same as in 1966.
Again like Malcom X, Ali repudiated the earlier racism of his Nation days. He had the occasional slip, but he committed his life to bringing peace through example and dialogue. His faith moved from the explicitly political to the profoundly spiritual. Ignoring the former attitudes when they are superseded by the latter ones is not whitewashing, it is acceptance of development.
Several times when past his prime he explained that he was not ‘The Greatest’ and that he never meant it when he said he was. He was’ clowning’, he was copying the patter of Gorgeous George to sell tickets, he said: “That was only publicity, saying I’m the greatest, just to build the fight, I never really believed…. still don’t.”
Ali’s friend and cornerman, Drew Bundini Brown, came up with the poems.
Even some of the more famous lines about the war came straight from The Nation. Can his principled objections be questioned? See this account of an exchange with Sugar Ray Robinson:
Ali was sitting on the bed, eyes downcast, when Robinson entered his Loew’s room. Sugar said: “You got a fight tonight. You need sleep.” Ali got up and handed him a thousand dollars in cash. “What’s this for?” Sugar asked. “I told you I can’t be in your corner. I don’t have a second’s license.” Ali said: “Keep it. You’re a good friend.”
“What’s the trouble, champ?” Sugar asked.
“The army. They’re gonna want me soon. But I can’t go.”
“But you have to go. What’s this ‘can’t’?”
“Elijah Muhammad told me,” Ali said, “that I can’t go.”
Ray said: “You won’t see a gun. Box some exhibitions. It’ll be a snap. If you don’t, they’ll send you to jail, pick up your license. You want to blow up your career, all you have, for nothing.”
“Well,” Ali said, “Elijah Muhammad told me.”
“Forget the old man,” Ray said, annoyed now. “Is Elijah going to go to jail, and all those other Muslims?”
“But I’m afraid, Ray, I’m really afraid.”
“Afraid of what? Of the Muslims if you don’t do what they told you?”
Sugar pressed for an answer; he never got one. Years later he recalled: “He never answered. The kid was terrified. I left him with tears in his eyes. If you ask me, he wasn’t afraid of jail. He was scared of being killed by the Muslims. But I don’t know for sure.”
Kram Jr., Mark (2009-06-03). Ghosts of Manila (pp. 41-42). HarperCollins.
I won’t take all of what he said at face value and nor will I dismiss it merely as the manipulations of The Nation, the thoughts of others, or the showman looking for sellout crowds. The point is that it is unknowable. To Hasan, with a few cherry-picked examples, exactly who he was and what he stood for is clear and obvious and if you don’t accept his version you are being hypocritical or/and inconsistent in order to jump on ‘the bandwagon’.
It is the likes of Hasan whom Mark Kram is writing about here.
Current hagiographers have tied themselves in knots trying to elevate Ali into a heroic, defiant catalyst of the antiwar movement, a beacon of black independence. It’s a legacy that evolves from the intellectually loose sixties, from those who were in school then and now write romance history. The sad truth was that Ali was played like a harp by the Muslims, a daft cult with a long record of draft dodging from Elijah (who went to prison) on down. His posture was not about unjust war, it was mainly a stratagem by the Muslims to keep themselves on the revolutionary scoreboard, to flex their power and image. Everyone who knew anything about racial politics then knew the press exposure given them was extravagant. They were into profit and running things like Papa Doc ran Haiti. They were, in fact, anti–civil rights, despised Martin Luther King, and nowhere near as serious as the Panthers, who were anarchic, helpful to the poor, and “ready to die on the spot.”
Kram Jr., Mark (2009-06-03). Ghosts of Manila (pp. 44-45). HarperCollins.
In the ring, Ali demonstrated reserves of bravery and tenacity which brought him close to death. Such scenarios peel away at the onion to expose something elemental in a person. Boxing unearths qualities and character with a clarity no other sport can accomplish and Ali had as much to reveal as any man that laced a glove. It’s hard to hold a grudge against a person like that. As a (white) Frazier fan said after having seen Ali lose ‘The Fight of the Century’ (the first of his epic displays of endurance), “Clay’s twice the man I thought he was”.
Immediately following the passing of such a man we don’t find it difficult to speak with praise and skip over the parts we’d like to forget, and in Ali’s case you can forget an awful lot. When he is the single most charismatic man to be captured by a lens to boot, you don’t whitewash, you just find nothing to be gained by pointing at the stains. That isn’t hypocrisy, its common decency and human nature. We don’t need to pretend the bad parts don’t exist though.
President Obama’s first comments following Ali’s death were full of praise, too. And I can only imagine that as president of the United States he is an establishment type. His pointing at the stains amounted to this typically good paragraph:
He wasn’t perfect, of course. For all his magic in the ring, he could be careless with his words and full of contradictions as his faith evolved. But his wonderful, infectious, even innocent spirit ultimately won him more fans than foes – maybe because in him, we hoped to see something of ourselves.
That was enough, for now. I will enjoy the memory of a 210 lbs welterweight with an ox’s heart, a statue’s chin, and the fighting mind of long-con grifter. If serious discussion about his life out of the ring is to be had, I shall enjoy that too.
Hasan’s quoting of Maya Angelou is exactly right, and thus it’s strange that he decided to use it:
People will forget what you did but will never forget how you made them feel.
To close his Reality Check, Hasan summoned all the pathos and sincerity he could, looked into the camera and said:
Muhammad Ali made millions of us feel proud of our identity, our ethnicity, our political views, our religious beliefs, and we will never forget him.
Rest in peace, my brother. Rest in peace.
This is the nub of it. It’s about Hasan, his identity, religion and politics and the tribalistic protection of them. It always is.
I’m not black and nor am I a Muslim, so I don’t get to address a recently deceased, 74-year-old man, whom I’ve never met and who happened to be a cultural icon, as ‘my brother’. I’m just a fight fan. And yet I still won’t play a shell game with his memory to forward an agenda.
Ali said and did some regrettable things. Either Hasan is supportive of all of it; or, if by operating by his standards, the same accusation can be made about him that he makes of others, that he is being insincere in his admiration. But I don’t believe Hasan would support it all. This means he believes, as I do, that Ali changed and adapted and, among other things, cast aside the influence of The Nation of Islam and became a better man. He believes that not everything Ali said 50 years ago should define what we think of him now that he has died. He, too, is forgiving him. But admitting this would hamper his intention. So instead he’s playing trope-a-dope.
This should be perfectly obvious, especially to an Oxford man like Hasan. But by suggesting you can only sincerely view Ali one way, his way, a knowingly incomplete and whitewashed way, Hasan is able use Ali’s legacy for his own ends. That, to coin a phrase, is below the belt.