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Mourning for an Activist rather than a Boxer

Ümit Öztürk

I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.

Mohammed Ali Clay

We have a country whose citizens are so overemotional that they perform a funeral prayer in the absentia of an actor who has to die according to the scenario. I guess many people will remember Oktay Kaynarca, namely Cakir from the TV Series, “Valley of the Wolves”. Clearly saying, we take too serious or mythologize figures and turn them into phenomena. This is a kind of habit belonging to our society.[i] Speaking of the “Valley of the Wolves”, Necati Sasmaz occupies an important place as a phenomenon in Turkey with his role as Polat Alemdar. Rather than being an actor, Polat has been regarded as a kind of national or moral role model on a large geography. Not only in Turkey but also in some countries from the Balkans, Mid-East and Arab World, people have been watching him every week for more than ten years.

Such figures are not easy to create; however, what makes such celebrities something beyond the ordinary actors[ii] or turns them into phenomena actually depends on the reactions from the audience within the context of historical and cultural background. In addition, this is not only specific to our society. For instance, Ip Man and his student Bruce Lee represented national heroes and their Chinese Kung Fu served as a national pride against the Japanese imperialism. In short, some people may be accepted and regarded as role models for communities, and such figures may even be functional for some groups of people, either as role models or ideals in their mind.

If to get to the main point, Mohammad Ali Clay was not only one of the most famous boxers of all the times but also he was a great role model for people from among varied ideologies and world views. When he died last week in the USA, I was thinking “Will people perform a funeral prayer in his absentia” and “What do people in Turkey know about him?”  By the way, in this case, the point in question was not an actor but a boxer who died not according to the scenario but really passed away. The questions occupied my mind for a few days and it was not surprising for me to learn that some people organized funeral prayers in his absentia in Turkey. Recently in Turkey, a more convenient atmosphere has been created to recall the memories of Mohammed Ali, especially after President Erdogan’s attendance to his funeral prayer in the USA due to the awareness raised by the media.

It was in 1976 when Mohammed Ali first visited Turkey and performed a Friday prayer in Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque[iii] in a huge crowd of people. Young generations may not have much information about this event and Clay’s personality but nowadays in Turkish media it has been highlighted and thus young people have been informed about him and his visit, as well. His pictures and words were shared and people conveyed condolences on the social media for a Muslim Boxer. In addition to his success in his career, his religious identity has become a center of attention overshadowing his activist sides. This is something functional and natural for the general audience within the social reality of Turkey and Islamic world for the spirit of Ummah, yet Mohammed Ali also deserves a special place in hearts for the activism he conducted during his life.

When compared to many other celebrities, what made him seriously different from the other famous figures stems from his different experiences. With his personality and stance, as the phrase goes; he could melt different ideologies in his own pot. He could refine and soften different ideologies. He was a kind of activist and his sui generis activism was not a dismissive one. He always took sides with the oppressed ones but also influenced very important people by socializing in a very large circle. His activism was so attractive that he was attracting people from the varied world-views and occupations from politicians to actors, just like a strong magnet.

Questioning was a part of his character and activism. He did not want to believe something blindly. After his conversion to Islam as a member of a religious movement, the Nation of Islam, he was questioning the movement as he found some teachings as racist and extremist. He was practicing and teaching the qualities of being a human in his own personality.

When he was called up to join the US Army during the Vietnam War, he rejected to serve for the army at the cost of his career. He was left with two choices, going to war or going to jail. He preferred to go to prison and explained his decision with these lines;

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”[iv]

These words were engraved in memories. He never preferred conformism, thus became a role model for people by standing up for his ideals and beliefs. He did charity works for the sick, oppressed and poor people. In addition to his anti-war stance and support for human rights, his activism included his campaigns against racism, imperialism and Islamophobia.

With his good or bad doings, he was a man like us but he was not an ordinary one. I guess we will learn a lot about his activism in the following days. We will watch films and documentaries, read novels and stories about his life. With Auguste Comte’s words “The dead govern the living”, so his words and stances will be discussed and will be a source of inspiration for many people. I think we will learn a lot about him in the following days. He will be a role model not only for ordinary people but also for the celebrities with his activism. He really deserves a special place in hearts but doesn’t deserve to be a tool for any ideology or isms. The world needs some more figures like him and there is a lot to learn from his activism. Before ending, I dare to say that people have been mourning for an activist rather than a boxer throughout the world, an activist who rejected to be a medium for ideologies since he could melt ideologies in his own pot.


[i] Even sometimes people want to beat an actor taking part in films as a raper or playing the bad guy when they come across in the street. Erol Tas, Nuri Alco and Coskun Gögen are some prominent characters of this case. Of course it is not specific to our country; even so, if compared to other countries, Turkey sets an interesting example of extremism in such cases.

[ii] There may be examples of this case among the actresses, as well.

[iii] It is also called as the Blue Mosque especially in the Western World

[iv] The lines quoted from Mike Marqusee’s book, “Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties” can be found in the link: http://www.isreview.org/issues/33/muhammadali.shtml