Muhammad Ali’s real legacy: From fanaticism to tolerance

tags: Muhammad Ali

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of “Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know,” which will be published in August by Oxford University Press.

Last December, when Donald Trump proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States, he drew a verbal left hook from the greatest boxer of all time. “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” Muhammad Ali declared.

Ali didn’t name names, but everyone understood that he was talking about Trump. His remark was endlessly recycled after Ali died earlier this month, because it fit snugly into a good-versus-evil media narrative. In this corner, The Donald: crude, vindictive, and bigoted. In the other corner, The Greatest: kind, forgiving, and tolerant.

Ali’s statement also blasted the “ruthless violence” of “so-called Islamic jihadists,” which got trotted out again after the Orlando shootings. It reminded all of us that “true Muslims”–as Ali called them–abhor the kind of bigotry and fanaticism displayed by Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 people in a gay nightclub.

But that missed the most important story of Ali’s life, which was his own transformation into a man of peace. The youthful Ali was himself a chronic bigot and fanatic, rigidly attached to a corrupt religious leader. Ali moved beyond that, reminding us that human beings — of every faith and background–can redeem themselves from ignorance and prejudice.

If you think Ali wasn’t a bigot, Google his 1971 interview with British journalist Michael Parkinson. Ali railed against interracial marriage, which he likened to mating across species. “God made us different,” Ali insisted. “Listen, bluebirds fly with bluebirds.” Four years later, in an interview with Playboy, Ali suggested that interracial couples should be killed. ...

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