Fighting for justice: Ali's legacy and the Arab Spring

Fighting for justice: Ali's legacy and the Arab Spring
Comment: Ali’s commitment to social justice had much in common with the values driving the Arab Spring. His legacy should serve as an inspiration for future generations, writes Mohamed Elmeshad
6 min read
14 Jun, 2016
Malcolm X's daughter Attallah Shabazz speaking at Muhammad Ali's memorial service [Getty]

There's something in the finality of death that allows a memory or general impression of a person to stand still. When Muhammad Ali died, many were scouring the internet for news, sound-bites and articles to commemorate the man, and also decide on the version of Ali they wanted to remember, be it the sportsman, revolutionary, civil rights activist, humanitarian, man of God or the definition of a modern day celebrity.

Most of us began this process a day or two too soon, as the funeral service after his death served as one last twist in a life that offered anything but the conventional. In true Ali fashion, it created a mainstream moment out of decidedly fringe and anti-establishment sentiments and characters in the American tapestry of public life.

The ceremony was not only a beautiful and sober celebration of his life, but also a vessel for broadcasting an embodiment of Ali's lifelong goal of all-inclusive humanism. It was an opportunity to occupy the mainstream airwaves in a way that ignores possible tampering from those who usually have more control over what is broadcast in the media.

Ali, who apparently planned his funeral service and the eulogies that would be delivered, managed to create an atmosphere that transmitted clearly the diverse elements he believed necessary to relay a genuine message of peace.

The service was hosted by Zaid Shakir, a spiritual advisor to the late boxer, and included a medley of religious figures, representing different traditions, but all seemed to share an element of being outspoken and nonconformist.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, for example gave a vivacious eulogy that called for justice for the Palestinians. He declared that the best way to honor Muhammad Ali would be to be Muhammad Ali, by "speaking truth to power".

The funeral service after his death served as one last twist in a life that offered anything but the conventional

His most audacious, era-defining days were brought to life by Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X's daughter, who imposed an overtone of defiance and empowerment throughout the crowd before even uttering a word, through the power of her name alone.

Those who remember Ali through the radical effect he had on society along with Malcolm X and the spiritual journey they both took, might be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the fact that former US presidents Clinton and Obama were asked to contribute to the eulogies.

Both figures have presided over wars and engaged in questionable tactics against foreign targets. This seemed out of place, given the fact that one of the boxer's most defining moments was putting his livelihood and safety on the line when he refused a call-up to serve in the Vietnam War.

His stance on that war helped define three subsequent generations of anti-war protesters in the West. Not only was his future as a boxer threatened, but he risked being branded a coward or unpatriotic at the height of his career and notoriety. He identified with global humanist struggles, showing up in Egypt, Libya, Palestine and other places around the world to express solidarity with the oppressed.

Emerging at an exceptional period in time, the genesis of the Ali phenomenon was rooted in the shift-shaping period of the 1960s, when the Cold War was driving America's military activities in an ominous direction, and many other countries in the world were witnessing transformative nationalist movements.

Ironically, Ali had exhibited a similar rejection of blind patriotism and anti-establishment activism that would certainly not have been sustainable in the same manner had he been from some of the countries he visited. Nor would it have been accepted by some of the leaders he had conference with such as, Nasser, Gaddafi and many monarchs (and most of their successors).

His stance on that war helped define three subsequent generations of anti-war protesters in the West

In Egypt today, for example, international athletes seem unable to express any sort of political sentiment, unless it is in support of the regime. Footballer Mohamed Abu Treika, easily the most loved and socially engaged major athlete in Egypt in the past 20 years, has had his assets frozen. He was subject to a vicious character assassination campaign in the media for a reported (unconfirmed) allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood.

In reality, Treika was never too involved in politics and had timidly expressed giving his vote to the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, at a time when the other choice was a Mubarak henchman.

Though they were unsuccessful in completely discrediting his reputation in the eyes of the public, Treika ultimately refrained from any political commentary, and now reserves almost all of his public voice for football talk. The same goes for many other footballers who were in the opposition.

Brash rejection of the patrons is universally derided by leaders in the Arab world. One of the reasons most of the status quo leadership held so much contempt for the so-called Arab Spring, is that it was a moment (initially) when the weak confronted the powerful, the young stood up to the old, the poor to the rich, minorities to majorities. It was a period in time that epitomised Ali's politics.

The Arab regimes deployed the normal political neutering mechanisms; but they were broken. They attempted on a daily basis to employ tools such as appealing to a sense of national security, scaremongering, deriding the "impropriety" of loud, disruptive protests, calling it a youth movement (negating the pure populism of it all), or by pitting socio-economic classes against each other.

Then, and to varied effect, the brutal arm of the regime took hold. If these moments were not to be harnessed, they were to be brutalised with perhaps Tunisia as the most notable exception.

Even after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1984, the man was still engaging in anti-establishment activism and humanistic diplomacy

Judging by the current relationship most Arab governments have had with radical opposition over the years, an Ali in today's world would have been imprisoned, impoverished, exiled, killed or intimidated by most of the current Arab regimes.

Some would argue that his eventual acceptance into mainstream American politics and folklore is evidence that his effects were harnessed and contained in the US, but in a subtler way than it would have been, in say the Arab world.

However, even after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1984, the man was still engaging in anti-establishment activism and humanistic diplomacy, rather than a nationalist one, as demonstrated by his 1990 hostage release mission in Iraq.

His message to the world resonated clearly over the past few days. But along with hoping this message falls on open ears, many including myself are hoping that the coming period produces many more Ali's, who can transmit such a message, especially in areas where the marginalised enjoy fewer rights than others.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He has worked extensively in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists' book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.