The death of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, arguably the most recognized Muslim-American in the world, could not have come at a more inopportune time for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has been under fire for his controversial racial and religious rhetoric as of late.
Ali had indirectly criticized the candidate's anti-Islam remarks in the past. "I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world," Ali said in a 2015 statement released shortly after alleged Islamic extremists carried out a San Bernadino, California, mass shooting, promoting Trump to propose banning all Muslims from entering the U.S.
Trump uncharacteristically ignored that slight when praising the champ on Twitter after learning about his death.
Trump later claimed that Ali's suggestion 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" wasn't about him.
However, the dichotomy of the death of a cultural icon, celebrated for arguing for the fair treatment and humanity of all people without regard for race or religion, with a candidate who has now openly questioned whether a Mexican or Muslim judge could provide him with a fair trial, was not lost on Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. “Don’t tell us how much you love Muhammad Ali and yet you’re going to be prejudiced against Muslims in this country," the senator said in a direct jab at Trump during a news conference in Los Angeles this past weekend.
Ironically, this is not the first time Trump has appeared to be culturally tone deaf regarding Muhammad Ali. Last December, President Barack Obama praised the contributions of Muslim-Americans, including professional athletes, in an Oval Office address in the wake of the San Bernadino shooting. In response, Trump tweeted, "Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?"
This assertion provoked mocking responses on social media featuring images of Ali and NBA legend (and occasional Trump nemesis) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but also illustrated the uncomfortable reality of the effect that Trump's rhetoric can have when it gets applied to actual human beings — particularly figures who are well-known and respected by broad swaths of the American public.
This phenomenon perhaps started with his disparaging remarks about Sen. John McCain's Vietnam war record, and most recently has picked up steam with his controversial, racially tinged criticisms of Republican New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and federal judge Gonzalo Curiel. And while Trump has never said anything negative publicly about Ali, the fact that he has vilified the fighter's religious faith regularly is not lost on the late icon's fans.
"Trump's portrayal of Muslims as murderers and terrorists is in direct contrast to what Muhammad Ali believed and represented," Shana Renee Stephenson, editor in chief of All Sports Everything told MSNBC on Monday. "Ali practiced peace and sought racial equality, as the teachings of Islam taught him. The faith that Trump ignorantly attacks, instilled a love of humanity within Ali and among devout Muslims worldwide. It is a guiding principle, a tenet of the religion that subverts any irrational beliefs Trump shares about Islam and its followers."
Ali understood the power of his image as a counterpoint to prevailing Islamic stereotypes, especially in the wake of a spike in terrorist attacks both in the U.S. and around the globe. Even though the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease prevented him for speaking in public for nearly the last 20 years of his life, Ali famously still lent his voice through public statements arguing against religious extremism and intolerance.
For instance, in 2011 alone, he lobbied the Iranian government to release American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who were being held captive in the country (they were freed that fall), and he reached out to the people of Norway, following a bloody massacre that was purported to be inspired in part by anti-Muslim sentiment. “I see the same wishes for our children to have happy, healthy lives; I see the same concerns for others less fortunate than ourselves; I see the same desire for peace and dignity,” Ali wrote.
Contrast that sentiment with Trump's assertion that "Islam hates us," and the gulf between these two figures could not seem wider. When Ali famously declared "I am America," he was certainly talking about his race, but he was also referencing his religion, which for admirers of the man was as much a part of his identity as his pugilistic prowess in the boxing ring.
"He risked everything he possessed — his livelihood and freedom — to truly do what Trump's platform mocks," said Stephenson. "Ali fought against politics and war to deliver peace and unification to a divided American nation. For Trump to 'honor' Ali at the time of his death is shameful hypocrisy."