Muhammad Ali, one of the most famous athletes in history and a convert to Islam, returned to the public spotlight Wednesday night to say that political leaders have a responsibility to foster understanding about his religion.
His comments came after Donald Trump, the leading Republican presidential candidate, stoked anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States by, among other things, suggesting that foreign Muslims be barred from traveling to the country. Trump has also questioned President Barack Obama’s affirmation that Muslim Americans are some of the nation’s sports heroes.
In a statement delivered to NBC, Ali did not speak about Trump directly but addressed his message to “Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States.”
“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” he said in the statement. “They have alienated many from learning about Islam.”
Ali, a former heavyweight champion who once gave Trump an award at a celebrity event, has defended Islam on a national stage for decades. In February 1964, shortly after winning the title — and before fully converting and changing his name from Cassius Clay — Ali defended his choice to participate in the Black Muslim movement to reporters.
“I go to a Black Muslim meeting and what do I see? I see that there’s no smoking and no drinking and their women wear dresses down to the floor,” Ali said at the time. “And then I come out on the street and you tell me I shouldn’t go in there. Well, there must be something in there if you don’t want me to go in there.”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Ali appeared on a celebrity telethon to defend his religion. He pleaded for acceptance and addressed the threat of terrorism, saying that terrorists killing in the name of Islam were wrong.
“People recognize me for being a boxer and a man of truth,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here to represent Islam if it was really like the terrorists make us look.”
Fourteen years later, Ali’s statement echoed his original comments.
“Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is,” he said in his statement.
In the days since Trump questioned Obama’s statement that Muslims were among America’s sporting heroes, people on the Internet responded by compiling lists of Muslim athletes. The list includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time NBA champion who on Wednesday suggested on Time.com that Trump’s comments were more in line with Islamic State rhetoric than with a leading presidential candidate.
“Thus,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote, “Trump is ISIS’ greatest triumph: the perfect Manchurian Candidate who, instead of offering specific and realistic policies, preys on the fears of the public, doing ISIS’ job for them.”
A poll released today by The New York Times and CBS News suggested that Trump was leading the Republican field, but that nearly two-thirds of voters were frightened by the prospect of him winning the presidency.