Ten days after the September 11 attacks, the world’s second most famous Muslim stood in the rubble and defended his faith.
“Islam is not a killer religion,” Muhammad Ali told rescue workers. “Islam means peace.”
Before September 11, the former heavyweight champion was undoubtedly the best known adherent of the fastest growing (and, in the West, the least understood) of the world’s religions. Since then, the “prettiest” face in boxing has been supplanted by that of Osama bin Laden as the most recognizable of Islam’s roughly one billion believers.
The threat to the popular perception of Islam suggested by this shift is hard to miss. While “bin Laden” has become shorthand for a world’s worth of anti-American sentiments, Ali in many ways is America. He’s at once the America we’d like to be — the brash young fighter grown into a good-humored humanitarian — and the America we persist in believing we are: a torch-bearer for the nations, as Ali literally was at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Through four decades of veneration we have seen in Ali’s celebrity the vaunted American ideal of tolerance writ large. Once he had proven himself on America’s terms, the fact of his faith became beside the point. His cultural influence has shown us the mathematics of the melting pot: If America is Ali and Ali is Islam, then America could be Islam too. Or at least claim to be.
With bin Laden, though, the variables have changed. Since the World Trade Center tragedy, Americans for the most part have gone out of their way to prove that we are a people tolerant of religious difference. Yet the now-commonly heard confession of participation in “racial profiling” of Arab Americans suggests that a deeply rooted distrust of religious difference generally and of Islam in particular has come to the surface. The few violent exceptions to the nationwide display of interfaith solidarity — the murder of a Sikh mistaken for a Muslim in Arizona, the shots fired at a mosque in Texas — only serve to underline this fact. To many, bin Laden, not Ali, “is” Islam now.
But to blame our misunderstanding of Islam on Osama bin Laden alone is merely a convenience, and a self-exonerating one at that. He gives us a good excuse. He lets us forget that the current perception of Islam as not just alien but specifically anti-American has been with us for some time. It can be traced back decades before last month’s attacks, and its origins are not what might be expected. As much as such things can be identified with a single event, the perception of Islam as a force opposed to all that Americans value was born one day in 1964, with the simple act of a young man publicly professing his beliefs. His name was Cassius Clay — the man who would be Muhammad Ali.
“I am not a Black Muslim — that is a name made up by the white press,” the 22 year-old Clay said. “It’s not a legitimate name. The real name is ‘Islam.'”
It was February 26, 1964, the morning after Cassius Clay upset the world by taking the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston. Malcolm X and other members of the Nation of Islam had been in Miami for the fight as supporters of Clay. Malcolm was always with his camera, snapping pictures of Cassius, who’d become his friend and protege. For years he had been scaring the bejeezus out of white America, and his presence raised the eyebrows of the press. Was the new champ really a member of a radical hate group, as the Nation of Islam was then thought to be?
“Islam means peace,” Clay explained with the very words he would use in the rubble nearly forty years later. “It is a religion and there are 750 million people all over the world who believe it, and I’m one of them.”
Clay was engaging that morning in 1964, as he always was, and spoke with a new earnestness. But the press remained skeptical. Public opinion is formed not on the front page but the sports page, and the sportswriters of the day began opining on religion in a way they had not before or have since. In the months following, columns and articles across the country resulted in a level of national awareness — if not understanding — of Islam that has only been rivaled in the last few weeks.
Reactions to Clay’s conversion varied depending on each sportswriter’s prior opinion of the loud-mouthed fighter. Some loathed him, some considered him the savior of a sport that had become boring and slow, and those general impressions were not changed. Yet there was a common note to the commentary. By announcing his conversion to Islam not as an up-and-comer, when perhaps it would have been his business, but as the Champion, Clay was seen to have stolen something from the American people.
At least that’s how the sportswriters saw it. Not that they blamed him alone; Clay was just a punk kid, after all. They had a bigger villain in mind. As far as they were concerned, the Black Muslims had corrupted and duped a promising athlete. Making little distinction between Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and the rest of the Muslim world, history as recorded by the sportswriters would have us believe that in February of 1964 Islam itself struck a blow against the character and sanctity of America.
Four years earlier, Clay had been an Olympic champion, a nominal Christian (he was baptized into the Catholic Church at 12), and something of a patriot. Arthur Daley of the New York Times noted that when it came time for athletes to ascend the Olympic pedestal in Rome’s Palazzo della Sport, “none stood at attention with more obvious pride that Cassius Marcellus Clay… he had won for himself but also for his country.” When a Russian reporter asked him the following day how he felt representing a nation that treated him as a second class citizen, Clay replied, “The USA is the greatest country in the world, including yours… We have our problems, sure, but we got qualified people working on that, and I’m not worried about the outcome.”
In the sports page sermons following the Clay-Liston bout, this kind of American faith was set at odds with Islam. Writing for Sports Illustrated, Huston Horn opened a profile of the new champion by situating Clay between Malcolm X and a bowl of vanilla ice-cream. One hopes symbolism as heavy-handed as this — black radicalism on the one hand, white innocence on the other — would prove to be an accident, but Horn himself proudly unpacked the image he concocted. “Taken together they pretty much summarize the new world champion: his tastes are just as simple, and his thoughts on life just as murky as they have been for years.”
Elsewhere in the press, sportswriters’ opinions were even easier to parse. Muslims again and again were compared to Communists, with all the attendant notions of intended world domination. One fighter’s faith had threatened all they held dear, and they wrote as if they had personally lost something. As David Remnick in his biography King of the World tells it, “The leading columnists reacted with almost as much outrage as Cassius Clay Sr.”
The columnists ruled the sports world in the early ’60s, and with it a significant portion of American popular opinion. None was more influential than Jimmy Cannon, writing then for the New York Journal-American. He responded to Clay’s conversion with an anti-Muslim screed:
“The fight racket, since its rotten beginnings, has been the red-light district of sports. But this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of hate. It has maimed the bodies of numerous men and ruined their minds but now, as one of Elijah Muhammad’s missionaries, Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness in an attack on the spirit… In the years of the Depression, the Communists used famous people the way the Black Muslims are using Clay now. This is a sect that deforms the beautiful purpose of religion.”
Rhetoric such this was not confined to the sportswriters. Some of the harshest words came from Clay’s predecessors and competitors in the boxing world. Future title contender Floyd Patterson agreed: “The image of a Black Muslim as the world heavyweight champion disgraces the sport and the nation.” And of the Nation of Islam, the former heavyweight champion (and Clay’s lifelong hero) Joe Louis said, “The things they preach are just the opposite of what we believe…”
Louis’s assessment best summed up the national mood toward Clay’s conversion and to Islam in general. It took the better part of a decade — during which he took the name Muhammad Ali and refused the Vietnam draft as a minister of the Nation of Islam — for Ali to regain fully his iconic status. Yet, even while Ali himself returned to national favor, the negative perception of his faith lingered and continues to shape the American view of the Islamic world.
“What’s really hurting me,” Ali said last month in response to the attacks, “is that the name ‘Islam’ is involved and ‘Muslim’ is involved and causing trouble and starting hate and violence.” Afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease, Ali has difficulty speaking these days. If he had continued, he might have added words from that first public profession of faith. “Followers of Allah are the sweetest people in the world,” he said in 1964. “All they want to do is live in peace.”
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.