by Robert Olson
Mohammad Ali’s funeral in Louisville, Kentucky on June 8 and his eulogy on June 9 offered a rare opportunity for Americans to experience the juxtaposition of local and global politics. Most Americans are familiar with Ali’s influence on American politics, culture, and history. But many Americans, especially younger white people, are not aware of the international impact of Ali’s extraordinary career, especially in Africa but also in Asia and the Middle East.
I missed the first part of his career, especially when he became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world in 1964. I was living in Turkey at the time, but I saw the tremendous love of the peoples of Turkey for Ali. In the 1960s, most Turks thought that Americans were racist as well as imperialist, which was a major reason why many in the Middle East supported Ali.
On June 4, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Ali the greatest of boxers and “a genuine Muslim.” Erdogan also noted, “Only fifty years ago, the country that aims to establish the world order was labeling people second-class citizens exclusively due to their skin color.” Erdogan praised Ali for his struggle against racism in the United States. He stressed Ali’s conversion to Islam and his consciousness objection to the Vietnam War (which was ironic, since anyone who now refuses military service in Turkey can be jailed).
Turkey, a member of NATO, has a strong relationship with the United States. After much hesitation, Turkey is now a major player in the U.S.-led “War on Terror” and the coalition fighting the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).
But it wasn’t his country’s ties to the United States that impelled Erdogan to come to Louisville to participate in Ali’s funeral but, rather, his strong religious beliefs. He truly believes that Ali was an inspiration to millions of young Muslims like himself.
Erdogan and Jordan’s King Abdullah II al-Hussein both planned to attend the funeral. But at the last moment King Abdullah decided not to come. Erdogan was the only remaining major Middle East figure attending.
The Turkish contingent arrived on June 7 to participate in Ali’s funeral the following day. On the morning of June 8, the Turks received unexpected news. According to Turkey’s press, Erdogan was informed that he had been removed as one the speakers at the June 9 eulogy. More bad news followed. During the funeral, when Erdogan asked the presiding imam if he could place on Ali’s coffin a piece of cloth from the Ka’aba, the Muslim religious site in Mecca, the imam refused. Officials reportedly said that they would place it on the coffin later. Then, the Turks were told that the highest Muslim religious leader in Turkey, Mehmet Gormez, director of the religious affairs office, would not be allowed to read a passage from the Quran.
The humiliation did not end there. The contingent then went to the Mohammad Ali Center in order to present Ali’s family with a number of presents, which is the custom among Turks for deceased high-ranking personages. Reportedly, Erdogan waited for 15 minutes. No one from the Ali family or their representatives showed up. Whether the Turks left the presents or took them with them is unclear.
According to Turkey’s press, most of the miscues were due to the Authentic Brands Group (ABG), the managing firm in charge of funeral and eulogy arrangements. ABG bought Ali’s estate in 2013. Ali, however, reportedly selected some of the speakers ahead of time, though it’s unclear whether he’d chosen any high officials from Turkey to speak at his eulogy.
Turks certainly think so. When Ali visited Turkey in 1976, he met with Necmettin Erbakan, an important Islamist leader who later became prime minister of Turkey and was an important mentor to Erdogan. When Erbakan met Ali he gave him a big bear hug. Ali flashed his famous smile and said, “This is the first time that any white man has ever hugged me.”
Many Turks also thought that Erdogan’s rush to honor Ali was distasteful and self-serving. Turkish Kurds, meanwhile, thought that Erdogan received the kind of treatment that he deserved at the hands of ABG representatives who were trying to make it a largely American, African American, and Muslim American affair.
When Rabbi Michael Lerner declared from the podium that Israel should be compelled to allow a Palestinian state in the West Bank, many Turks probably applauded him. They were not so happy when Lerner added, “Turkey should stop killing Kurds.” By that time, however, Erdogan had left for home so he didn’t have to hear those words. King Abdullah was probably happy that he decided not to show up in the first place.
Photo: Necmettin Erbakan and Muhammad Ali