Muhammad Ali, the Muslim

There is a photograph of him offering prayers in the ring. This one image conveys clearly that you cannot remove the sportsman from his larger role as a political Muslim.

As an interested observer with no knowledge of or interest in boxing, Muhammad Ali became an advertisement for Islam. He came to represent certain qualities of pragmatism, focus and humanity and brotherhood that might qualify him, for today’s stereotyping, as a ‘good Muslim’.

He, like everybody else, was not perfect – as a man, as a friend, as a Muslim and even as a Black. But his stance on many issues had sound ethical ring. When he refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War, he explained his reason thus:

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said at the time. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

He was arrested, stripped of his title and his license was revoked. He came to be hated. “Is this what he does to America, an America that made him?” they asked.

If a nation can make a man, why can a religion not? I ask this because an attempt is being made to erase his race, his faith, and thereby all that he stood for. As Donald Trump had done: “Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who?”

It is not merely the rightwing doing so. It comes camouflaged as showing him as being “beyond” all these. The fact is that he chose these identities.

The persistence to call him by his birth name is as much a political act as a religious one. Why would the Hindutva people insist on calling him Cassius Clay, even though he had stated, "Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn't choose it, and didn't want it. I'm Muhammad Ali, a free man..."

Few understand what freedom means to others.

I had a few exchanges with some from the Indian rightwing. It started with this quote I posted:

"The word 'Islam' means 'peace.' The word 'Muslim' means 'one who surrenders to God.' But the press makes us seem like haters."

This statement is more political than religious. It is also sad that after leaving a life of slavery, even Muhammad Ali had to deal with Islamophobia. Ali was alluding to the chasm between what his belief meant and how it was perceived by those supposedly with open minds. He was no blind believer. He categorically condemned recent terrorist attacks:

“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”

The rejoinder to the quote was this:

“Well, Ali (CC) lived and grew up in different times – had he been born now, he wouldn't have said this again!”

The fact is he became even more aware of this aspect of his identity due to the increasing profiling of his faith. As after 9/11 for which he said: "The real Islam comes from Mecca. All people are God’s people. The devil can be any color." Following Donald Trump’s brag about not allowing Muslims into America, Ali had stated that Muslims have to stand up to anti-Islamic speech.

His response was decades after his conversion when he had already owned the religion.

But why should the Hindu right be in denial about the faith of somebody so far away? There were attempts to suggest that he turned to Islam only because he wanted to escape being drafted or to protest against Whites.  (Do they even get the irony here when they insist on ghar wapsi of Muslims, to get them back into the fold of Hinduism, that perhaps they had issues with the religion?) There was also a desperation to point out that he was already a world champion before he chose to convert, and Islam had nothing to do with it.

This is amusing, for it exposes their hollowness. Here is a man who answered to the name “The Greatest”, who was a champion, who could have whatever he wanted, and he chose Islam.  

I read somewhere that while Cassius Clay was a nice, charming bloke of a boxer, Muhammad Ali was a perennially angry man whose boxing too had become hardened. But, then, experts of the sport say that his so-called dancing days in the ring were more flash less fight.

The first comment is fascinating. I know it was by a white man, but forgot to save the article. How can a person transform with a change in name? Why do people forget that Ali used the name Cassius X, after Malcolm X, in his early Muslim days? As I said before, he was no blind believer. He even experimented with mentors, moving from Malcolm X to Elijah Muhammad.

Those who believe that Islam should not get any credit for his greatness are resistant to the idea of using this logic when they talk about terrorism and jihad. Will they cease blaming the religion for these as well?

Nobody would suggest that Muhammad Ali learned boxing from Islam or even how to be a winner. But it is possible that, having found spiritual equanimity due to his raging anger against the world outside and its attitude towards him and his people, he felt assured and at peace with his identities.

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me—black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me."


A couple of videos doing the rounds. The first one begins well but drifts into evangelism; the second is funny. He was not just a boxer. You've got to check out his oeuvre to be able to see that.


Snapchat or Drought?
India's Elite Makes a Case for Tanmay Bhat versus Lata and Sachin

“Snapchat or drought?” demanded Arnab Goswami on Newshour. That one cryptic query bears witness to how reductive debates are and what freedom of expression has come down to.

A standup comic Tanmay Bhat put up a short video where he impersonated Lata Mangeshkar and Sachin Tendulkar in a mock battle. Impersonation and mimicry are a staple of comedians and if done well can caricature the subjects and throw in more than just laughs.

Tanmay Bhat does nothing of the sort. It’s the kind of thing your friends might slap their thighs over as you crack off-colour jokes at the pub, and that too only if you are paying for the drinks.

However, everyone has their rights. He to do what he did, and I to find it objectionable. But, there are people who will fight for his right to be stupid but not yours to be offended by such stupidity. And how do they justify it?

It so happens that the MNS party and the like issued threats calling for the removal of the video, and of beating up Tanmay. The police too got into the act.

All of this happened after the controversy broke out. It is ridiculous to assume that those who object to the video want it censored or the comedian arrested or harmed in any way. (I am putting it up, too.) If they want a bloody disclaimer with that line, “I may not agree with what you say but I’ll defend your right to say it”, then I’ll just ask them to shut up since they think there will be fewer clicks on their liberalism were they to defend another’s right to have a differing opinion.

I have one major objection to that video, and it is Tanmay as Sachin poking fun at Lata’s age – her face looks like it has been in water for eight days apparently – and urging her to die. To anybody who has elderly parents, this should hurt deeply. It isn’t about the pop taunt of “hurt sentiments” – it is closer to the bone. You are a hypocrite if you go online to outrage over an old person being ill-treated by her family or post pained captions on seeing pictures of old age homes but think that Mr. Tanmay Bhat’s act is just fine.

The funny thing is that the Tanmay camp finds it offensive when there are girth jokes about him. Fat-shaming, they say. It is and it is offensive. Wonder why they do not find age-shaming offensive too. Clearly, a level-playing field satisfies nobody.

They say people are just obsessed with this icons business and both are Bharat Ratnas. The irony is that even suppose they are ‘protected species’, just what are these urban legends like Tanmay Bhat? One does not see social media denizens support the right of a Johny Lever or a Kamaal R. Khan for similar ‘humour’; they are, in fact, dismissed as crass. This proves that it is not about freedom of speech but about elitist cliques.

For those who think Tanmay Bhat as well his AIB group are independent-minded rebels, do not forget that they had sent their queries in advance to be vetted for their roast on Bollywood celebrities and apologised to the Church. [I had written about AIB Knockout's fake fight for FoE]

Somebody even posted that those “hounding Tanmay” would return after a couple of days to their old task of “harassing Muslims”. This is just so pathetic to even put them on par. The hounding is done by some political parties/idiots; minority harassment is social behavior in its varied forms.

Also, all manner of caste and regionalism has come into play, and while these aspects of the ‘hounders’ (including weirdly enough the people spoofed) are highlighted, the comedian’s caste etc. are not dragged in. One says it is because Lata and Sachin are Brahmins people are protecting them, another says Marathi pride should be hurt by drought in Maharashtra and not a Snapchat video.

Nobody can deny that casteism is prevalent in India, but in this case is it being milked dry to support bad humour, reducing the genuine debate over it. Ask these same people to do a Snapchat funny video of our other Brahmins – TV anchors and newspaper editors (who should naturally stand for their FoE) and they have no answer.

I suspect some even think that the comedian was making an anti-casteist statement...except that the Brahmin Lata trills to Sachin, "Vinod (Kambli) is better than you". Kambli is from a backward class community. And if we really want to get into this, then it is again the Bhat way to get a high-caste to legitimise him. 

The worst is dragging in the drought. Media people who were pained about the time wasted on such stupid debates as against the drought went on to host shows discussing Tanmay Bhat. Do they even have a spine, forget a conscience?

The drought vs. Snaphat idea is opportunistic and insensitive. Nobody is censoring the drought, so give it attention, and not only when it is ‘happening’ to do so.

Then there were those saints who said if you don’t like it don’t watch it. They seem to have reached a Zen state where they know without watching whether something is likeable or not. And if switching off is the answer to deal with what we find offensive, then I guess we can apply if to hate speech and government policies too. In fact, these zombies probably do, except for they Twitter/Facebook forays where they lend their shoulders to the martyrs they create.

Director Mahesh Bhatt posted this quote by George Carlin:

“I think it's the duty of a comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”

Yeah sure. Our PM has been doing this for a while now. And the joke is on us.