Muhammad Ali and the Fight Against Genocide

This post is the second post in our Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali Series guest edited by Andrew R.M. Smith. Muhammad Ali was a complex figure and he had a large influence beyond the United States. The goal of these posts is to explore various aspects of Ali’s life and reflect on his legacies, offering insight into understudied themes and periods. 

By Albinko Hasic, Guest Contributor

The death of a giant, bigger than life itself, sent shock waves, not just through the world of sports, but the world as a whole. Muhammad Ali, champion in the ring and outside of it, was gone. For so long, Ali’s life served as a great example for the downtrodden all around the world. His death beckoned a moment of reflection on that great life which benefitted so many people around him, and the world he called home. Personalities within sports, and around it took to Twitter and other social media platforms to say a few words about what Muhammad Ali meant to them. Unseen, however, was how many regular people’s lives Ali touched. The charismatic Ali was undoubtedly the greatest boxing champion, and an American sports icon, but outside of the ring, he championed another cause altogether – human rights. Many people wrongly assumed Ali’s charismatic personality, television interviews, and other media appearances contributed to the positive changes within society and around the world. What is almost never discussed are Ali’s many hours on planes, in meetings, at discussions and at negotiation tables, fighting in a different sphere for people he will have never met, or ever known personally. Ali’s activism was active and alive, matching his bigger-than-life personality. His legacy, perhaps even bigger than the man himself, still lives in the memories of the people whose cause he gladly championed.

Born into relative poverty in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, the hands of Cassius Clay and those around him were already tied. Societal advancement was not something readily feasible for the African-American population. Despite the inherent disadvantage Clay discovered boxing by mistake, stumbling upon a local gym after a stolen bike incident.[1] Clay’s career took off, winning Olympic gold in 1960, and hailed as a hero in the eyes of the American white establishment. It wasn’t for long.

Ali’s decision to join the Nation of Islam, to embrace Black Nationalism, and to change his name shocked the public sphere in the United States. His subsequent refusal to be conscripted for the Vietnam War led to arrest, much to the pleasure of the white elite. Losing prime fighting years, Ali successfully challenged and appealed the decision in the Supreme Court, winning another big battle. Ali became synonymous with counterculture and the fight against unfair societal rules imposed on minority peoples within the country, contributing much to the Civil Rights movement and the human rights fight within the U.S. Upon his retirement in 1981, Ali globalized his efforts, taking part in numerous actions around the world; everything from talking a man off of the ledge in L.A., to securing the release of U.S. hostages in Iraq, to championing Palestinian human rights. Ali wasn’t content with simply standing by idly, admiring his already monumental legacy. He built on his reputation as a “people’s champ,” by broadening the scope of all people, not just his.[2]

In 1992, war had begun in the breakaway Yugoslav republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian Serb army began a campaign of complete annihilation. The Bosnian Muslim civilian population was purposefully targeted as complete areas of the country were “ethnically cleansed.” This culminated in the Srebrenica genocide and a wider campaign of genocide in the country where by some estimates over 100,000 people were systematically murdered. Sarajevo, the country’s capital, resisted the longest siege in modern military history. The world looked on as the first genocide on the European continent since the Holocaust took place on their very television screens. To make matters worse for the embattled Bosnian Muslim population, the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo (Resolution 713) on the former Yugoslav territories. This hurt the Bosnian army the most because the Serbian army inherited the vast majority of Yugoslavia’s pre-war arsenal and Croatia could easily smuggle arms through their many ports and coastline. A few reporters, such as Christiane Amanpour, pleaded for the world to take action.

Half a world away, Muhammad Ali learned of the concentration camps and the brutal attack on members of his own faith, but more importantly, on diversity. It did not matter that it didn’t impact him directly. Ali knew that it was an attack on humanity, and therefore an attack on him as well. The Muslim community of Chicago, in cooperation with Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) created a Bosnia Task Force, in hopes of raising attention to brutal massacre taking place. The task force was successful in gathering members to join its cause, with the aim of first and foremost, confronting the killing taking place and establishing peace in the area. The group needed star power to raise attention to their cause, and they knew exactly whom they would contact, Muhammad Ali. The former champion gladly accepted the invitation. Traveling to New York, and despite under the constant shadow of his Parkinson’s disease, Ali addressed the U.N. Security Council and other senior officials, pleading to raise the weapons embargo. Even though he was unable to join later protests and rallies for the cause of the Bosnian population, Ali issued statements such as, “I wanted to be there to help fight against genocide and `ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia,” the statement said. The people of Bosnia “should be able to get their own arms to fight off the attacks of the Serb forces.”[3]

As Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first ambassador to the U.N. would later recount, “The next time I had the opportunity to meet Muhammad Ali, he actually came to meet me, at the United Nations in 1992 where I was representing Bosnia & Herzegovina, (BiH). Muhammad wanted to do as much as he could to urge action to confront the genocide being unleashed at that time. While it was the Muslim population of BiH that was being targeted, we both understood that it was diversity that was also under assault and that stereotypes were being used as the weapon of indifference.” For Ali, it was a wider humanitarian mission and the right of a people to assert their very existence and identity in the face of complete annihilation. Ali understood this struggle, from his earliest days in a racist society to the latter part of his life when he saw the global fight against injustice. For Ali, identity and life were connected and he sympathized with the need to preserve both. For the Bosnian Muslim population, whose hands were tied at home and internationally, Ali’s very support gave credence to their fight for survival. In the U.S. we remember Ali as a great fighter, a bigger-than-life personality, but for millions of people around the world, and in a small corner of Europe, he was a humanitarian, and a champion of human rights above all.

Albinko Hasic is a PhD Student in the Department of History at Syracuse University. He runs the War through Art website. You can find him on Twitter at @albinkohasic.

Notes:


[1] Ezra, Michael. “Louisville’s Favorite Son: The Professional Debut.” In Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon, 7-13. Temple University Press, 2009. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt14bt257.5.
[2] Hauser, Thomas. 1991. Muhammad Ali: his life and times. New York: Simon & Schuster.
[3] Harris, Hamil R. 1993. “Muslim Rally on Mall Urges U.S. Action in Bosnia.” The Washington Post (Pre-1997 Fulltext), May 16, A28. http://search.proquest.com.libezproxy2.syr.edu/docview/307639120?accountid=14214.

One thought on “Muhammad Ali and the Fight Against Genocide

  1. Pingback: Series Overview – Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali | Sport in American History

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