There is a story that goes like this: After a long period of secrecy, Cassius Clay announced to the world in 1964 that he has converted to Islam.
Upon hearing that Clay has become a Muslim, Ali’s lifelong coach and legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee exclaimed with astonishment: “Muslin! How can a man become muslin?”
In America, muslin was known as a light fabric primarily used to strain cheese curds or yogurt.
I remembered the anecdote and retold it many times because I thought it was very insightful; although there is a probability that the story is not true. First of all, there is the sheer absurdist humour in somebody’s befuddlement upon hearing a man has transformed into a cloth.
Secondly and most importantly, the anecdote tells us that barely five decades ago, it was very possible for an adult, educated man in the Western world to not know what Islam is or what a Muslim is.
We live in a very different world now. Even a made-up story like that will not make any sense or will not amuse us today.
Social scientists say that mass consciousness like nationalism, large-group identity etc are largely products of modernity. Collective identity became a central part of the life of common people only after the advent of mass communication and mass education.
While the West entered the era of mass awareness in the 19th century, much of the rest of the world only entered modernity in the 20th century. And for much of the 20th century, Muslims of the world found themselves relegated to the background of history.
The central drama of the first half of the 20th century was the terrible global struggle to contain intoxicated ambitions of the Germans. For most of the second half, two superpowers fought a hot and cold clash of ideology, economy, and imperialism that spanned the globe and even space.
Despite what your all-knowing uncle may tell you, these titanic confrontations had almost nothing to do with Islam and Muslims. The wheels of history did not revolve around Islam and Muslims.
In Game of Thrones parlance, for much of modernity, Muslims were like the Smallfolks of Westeros; trying to survive while the lords played their bloody games of conquest over their lands. They were acutely aware that in the chessboard of the world, they were like pawns. That’s why, when he converted to Islam, Muhammad Ali at once became the most famous and most beloved person in the Muslim world. The supremely confident Ali was the living embodiment of Muslim pride in the highest circles of the world.
The world of the 21st century could not be more different. Muslims now are the hinges of history. The spotlight of global attention is firmly upon them. US presidential elections have been decided, and will probably be decided, by how Americans respond to terrorism and radicalism among Muslims.
The Brexit referendum in June also largely depends on issues of immigration. The EU may well break down in the coming years from reaction to Muslim immigration. Muslims are backdrops no more.
There is ebb and flow among groups in history. Nations come to the forefront of history sometime by the dint of their hard work, innate potential, or sometime just by sheer circumstances. When nations take the central place in world stage, they face acute psychological challenges.
Particularly strong is the heady millennial feeling. Groups under the spotlight often feel that surely this is the time when their destiny finally materialises? Surely these intoxicating days portend the final era when their supremacy will be permanently stamped on the world? The millennial fever is very hard to manage.
The Germans most famously lost their heads completely. The English managed their entry and exit from the central stage far better. Arguably, today there are no large groups more psychologically ill-prepared to be on the centre stage than Muslims.
Muslims now are the hinges of history. The spotlight of global attention is firmly upon them. US presidential elections have been decided, and will probably be decided by how Americans respond to terrorism and radicalism among Muslims
When I say Muslims, I mean Arabs, because it is also clear that the visceral Muslim reaction to modernity originated almost exclusively from the Arabian heartlands; the rest of the Muslim world were managing their entrance into modern era far better.
I wouldn’t say that the millennial fever has gripped the whole Muslim world. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are leading their lives as before.
They are trying to provide for their families, raise children as good persons and citizens, becoming friends with all kinds of people. Religion is a personal and spiritual guide for them for navigating a very complex earthly existence.
They get happy when Muslims attain greatness individually or collectively, but they do not want to forcefully shape the world around them to their own image.
But for many others, the Muslim identity has become a vessel for all their aspirations and fantasies. There are the Salafists who think that the only way to successfully overcome the challenge of modernity is to take the whole world into a time machine and go back to an imagined past.
There are the romantic revolutionaries who think that blindly striking back at the global establishment without pondering about consequences is the only heroic path.
There are the psychological misfits who think that all their confusions and insecurities will go away if they can embrace an ideal of pure action. And also there are the psychopaths who just want to see the world burn. What unites all these people is a millennial vision of the final era and a purist division of us versus them.
We saw a wonderful vision of the world in the funeral of the most famous Muslim of the 20th century. Muhammad Ali was close friends with Jews, Christians, all.
He personally campaigned for a republican Mormon senator in lily-white Utah because he liked the man. He was close friend with Billy Crystal, a product of the New York Jewish entertainment establishment.
He worked with Billy Crystal to raise funds for Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I repeat a university in Israel. He interacted closely with Christian pastors and priests. The LGBT athletic community expressed gratitude to Ali for supporting them. And all this while Ali triumphantly carried his Muslim identity. He stridently worked for all kinds of Muslim causes throughout the world, including Palestine.
So far, the most famous Muslim of the 21st century has been Osama Bin Laden. Like it or not, the Muslim community’s inadvertent occupation of the world stage has been a most infamous one, and getting bad to worse.
Only the Muslims can erase that infamy and enable millions of Muhammad Ali’s successors to represent their community.