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We should all act on Ali's wise words over festive season

By Gail Walker

Published 15/12/2015

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

Electorally, the French nation drew back from endorsing the worldview of the Front National in the second round of regional elections on Sunday. After the first round, when the FN made big gains, it seemed that the mood in France post-Paris would swing opinion and some regional power their way.

That didn't happen. Commentators were of the view that, as far as electors were concerned, the first round had adequately registered their anxieties about security, immigration and integration, but that was as far as the polls were prepared to go behind Marie Le Pen's far-Right agenda.

Meanwhile, yesterday it was reported that Isis had begun killing children with Down's Syndrome and other disabilities in Mosul in Iraq.

In our own country, this paper yesterday carried an exclusive interview with Pastor James McConnell, whose public remarks on Islam have famously brought him to court, but famously also brought to his side a cocktail of figures from other religious creeds, including Islam, defending his right to say what he thinks, however misguided.

In the US, that country's customary equilibrium when under attack - as it assuredly was in the San Bernardino atrocity two weeks ago, which saw 14 people killed and 22 injured - was marred somewhat by aspiring Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's intemperate remarks calling for a ban on Muslim immigration.

That, in turn, prompted a statement from the US's most famous and revered Muslim, who converted to Sunni Islam in 1972. It is worth reflecting on the views of Muhammad Ali, Olympic gold medallist, three-time world heavyweight champion and legendary figure. "I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world," he said. "True Muslims know the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion."

These are striking comments, not least because there is much dispute about what Islam does "stand for", if a religion can be said to "stand for" anything unambiguously.

In the midst of debate about "jihad" and "true Islam", amid what must be confessed is general ignorance in the Western world and in much of the rest of it, too, Ali's words carry considerable weight. He also called on political leaders to act responsibly in the face of atrocity.

"We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know, or should know, that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody." While not directly naming Trump, the statement was issued under the headline "Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States".

These are astonishing days. Things have been seen with our own two eyes which most of us never thought possible - from multiple beheadings, to footage of suicide bombings, to dead children washed up on a beach, to mass kidnaps and mass murder on beaches, shopping malls and city streets.

There appears to be little or no direction as to how these many issues are to be managed, if that's the word. The more extreme the political response - equally stupid from Left and Right - the more ineffective the outcome.

This is where the wisdom of individuals comes into its own. Ali himself was criticised for intemperate language in his professional career, goading Ernie Terrell during his title defence in 1967, shouting "What's my name?" between punches, because Terrell had referred to Ali by his "slave name", Cassius Clay. He also notoriously referred to his great opponent Joe Frazier as an "Uncle Tom", which ratcheted up the tensions prior to their epic title decider in 1971. A man at the very centre of a global fame with its only parallel being Elvis Presley did find himself at times overcome by poor judgment outside the ring.

Nonetheless, he represented then the most articulate and beautiful aspects of human athleticism just as, now, he represents a temperate and experienced worldview, more generous and braver than ever as he makes his way under the burden of Parkinson's disease.

Maybe it's time, as we face into Christmas, to revisit exactly what we mean by the "spiritual values" we talk about all the time, while actually truly believing in nothing at all.

Muhammad Ali versus Donald Trump may literally be "no contest". But what the champ says arises from his own deep faith in Allah, and that needs to be understood, because he was not "taking down" a political opportunist, but literally standing up for his faith.

"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."

Let's bring the timbre of those words into our Christmas season and see what happens.

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