Muhammad Ali’s enduring lesson

The Toronto Star | June 9, 2016

Little boys with the name Muhammad have just discovered a new hero.

The death of boxing legend Muhammad Ali has cracked open a chapter in history that will no doubt inspire a new generation of young people, and specifically, those who are Muslim and black.

It’s still hard for many of us who wear either, or both, of these labels to feel fully at ease in our communities. Ali reminds us that to be heroic is to be proud of who we are and what we believe in.

But there are other critical lessons in Ali’s life that are worth reflection. Those who feel (or are made to feel) outside of mainstream society often struggle to assert their presence and their value — think of movements like Black Lives Matter or Idle No More. Yet, there is a danger in being so disillusioned, so marginalized that one loses faith in the very possibility of full and meaningful integration.

Early in life Ali clearly had lost that faith, if he ever had it to begin with. He joined a movement that advocated for separate societies for blacks and whites because he needed a place where he could be “unapologetically black.” Though he would drastically change his views later on, he initially joined thousands of other Americans in rejecting the possibility of peaceful and respectful coexistence because he and others couldn’t fully realize themselves within the status quo.

While this may seem self-defeating, even threatening to us today, at the time such a vision resonated with many. It promised freedom and justice; how else could black people ever truly succeed in a predominantly patriarchal, white society that refused to grant them full personhood?

Yet, on such a spectrum of thought, one will find supremacists of every political bent, including those who view the world through a narrow prism of “us” versus “them” and work for a clash of civilizations, through force if necessary. These movements exist and thrive today, and include the extremists who use Islam as a cloak to argue that there must be a war between the West and Islam.

“Terrorists are not following Islam. Killing people and blowing up people and dropping bombs in places and all this is not the way to spread the word of Islam. So people realize now that all Muslims are not terrorists,” said Ali.

And yet, in the narratives of violent extremists, one finds political grievances, critiques of Western hegemony and double-standards, protest against the constant bombardment and war in Muslim-majority countries. And while there is a wide gulf between refusing to participate in the U.S. war in Vietnam and orchestrating terrorist acts, the anger and disillusionment with government-sanctioned violence and sense of alienation are one and the same.

The varied tactics of dissent, of contesting political norms, are what differentiates terrorists from heroes. But that distinction is lost at a time of hyper vigilance against extremism, leading a troubling number of young Canadian Muslim youth to admit they are reluctant to share their political and social views at all, according to a recent Environics poll. Ali strove for justice at a high cost, speaking truthfully even when it went against the establishment.

That fearlessness remained after Ali embraced mainstream Islam. Like Malcolm X had before him, Ali came to believe in a vision for humanity that was a more faithful reflection of Islam’s teachings than earlier divisive notions of irreconcilable racial communities.

This shift in his beliefs is perhaps his most powerful example.

His later life illustrates the importance of being allies of one another, becoming our own “messengers of peace,” and persevering through hardships in order to bring about justice. This is what should inform how we tackle the far-right supremacists and violent extremists of our time.

We should all carry our heads a little higher as we remember Ali — because his life is a reminder that we should remain true to ourselves while we challenge the policies and narratives that limit equal and full participation in our society.

Amira Elghawaby is the communications director at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM). Imam Yasin Dwyer is a Muslim chaplain.