Muhammad Ali’s funeral in Louisville on June 9 and his eulogization on June 10, offered a rare opportunity to experience the juxtaposition of global and local politics.
Many Americans, especially younger white people, are simply not aware of the international impact of Ali’s extraordinary career, especially in Africa, but also in Asia and the Middle East.
I missed the first part of his career when he became the heavyweight boxing champion in 1964. I was living in Turkey at the time but I saw the tremendous adulation and love of the peoples of Turkey for Ali. In the 1960s, most Turks thought that Americans were racist as well as imperialist. This was the main reason many peoples of the Middle East championed Ali.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered condolences on Ali, calling Ali the greatest of boxers and “a genuine Muslim.” Erdogan also noted, “Only 50 years ago, the country that aims to establish the world order was labeling people second-class citizens exclusively due to their skin color.”
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Turkey’s president praised Ali for his struggle against racism in the United States. He stressed Ali’s conversion to Islam and his resilience as a conscientious objector against the Vietnam War (rather strange praise as any young man who now refuses military service in Turkey could be jailed).
Erdogan is the strongman leader of Turkey and an important world leader. His country is a member of NATO; it has a strong relationship with the U.S. and the European Union.
Turkey is now, after much hesitation, a major player in the U.S.-led war on terror and in the coalition against the Islamic State. Turkey is the most important country regarding the wars in Syria and Iraq because it shares over 800 miles of borders with both countries.
It was not ISIS that impelled Erdogan to come to Louisville to participate in Ali’s funeral and eulogy but his strong religious beliefs. He truly believes that Ali was an inspiration to millions of young Muslims, like himself and King Abdullah of Jordan.
Both Erdogan and Jordan’s King Abdullah II al-Hussein were to attend the funeral, but at the last moment King Abdullah decided not to come. Erdogan was the only remaining major Middle East figure attending.
The Turkish contingent arrived June 8 to participate in the funeral the following day. On June 9, the group received unexpected news, according to Turkey’s press, that Erdogan was informed that he had been removed as one of the presenters at the eulogy service the next day/
More bad news followed. During the funeral, when Erdogan asked the presiding imam if he could place a piece of cloth from the Ka’aba, the Muslim side in Mecca, on Ali’s coffin. the imam refused. Officials reportedly said they would place it on the coffin later.
Then, the Turks were told that the highest Muslim religious leader in Turkey, Mehmet Gormez, director of the religious affairs office, would not be allowed to read a passage from the Koran. This smote the proud Turks even more.
The humiliation did not end there.
The contingent then went to the Muhammad Ali Center in order to present Ali’s family with a number of presents, which is the custom among Turks for deceased high-ranking personages. Reportedly Erdogan waited for 15 minutes and no one from the family or their representatives showed up. Whether the Turks left the presents or took them with them is unclear.
According to Turkey’s press, most of the miscues were due to Cox Media Group, the firm in charge of funeral arrangements. Apparently, the company bought 80 percent of Ali’s naming rights for $50 million in the 1980s.
It is not known whether Ali himself had selected any high officials from Turkey to speak at his eulogy. Turks certainly think so. When Ali visited Turkey in 1976, he met with Necmetting Erbakan, the leader of the National Salvation Party, the strongest Islamist part in Turkey. He became prime minister of Turkey in 1996. He was a mentor to Erdogan.
When Erbakan met Ali he gave him a big bear hug. Ali flashed his famous simile and reportedly said, “This is the first time that any white leader has ever hugged me.”
Many Turks also thought that Erdogan’s rush to honor Ali was distasteful and self-serving. Kurds in Turkey thought that Erdogan received the kind of treatment that he deserved at the hands of Cox representatives who were trying to make it a largely American affair.
The Turks thought that Rabbi Michael Lerner was spot on when he declared from the podium that Israel should be compelled to allow a Palestinian state in the West Bank. They were not so happy when Lerner added, “Turkey should stop killing Kurds.”
It was a good thing Erdogan and the Turkish contingent had left on Thursday night so they did not have to hear those words. King Abdullah was probably happy that he decided not to show up.
Local politics and global politics sometimes do not mix.
Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst specializing in Turkish and Kurdish affairs.