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Putting Muhammad Ali’s Legacy to Work

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the president of Turkey.
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One might wonder why the president of Turkey would fly halfway around the world to attend the funeral of an American boxer. The answer is simple: I will pay my respects to Muhammad Ali on behalf of the Turkish people because his extraordinary story must not end here. By putting his ideals into practice, world leaders can address many persistent problems.

Muhammad Ali was an exceptional athlete and a remarkable human being. For many a sleepless night in the 1970s, I was one of countless people in Turkey who would get up in the wee hours to watch the Louisville Lip’s fights. Ali had become such an awe-inspiring figure by then that entire families would talk about professional boxing over hot tea and pastries and review the champ’s matches with friends and colleagues over the following days. The excitement was so palpable that a Turkish folk singer released a popular single to immortalize the "Rumble in the Jungle," Ali's title match against George Foreman in 1974, and hail the People’s Champion as the hero of oppressed people everywhere.

But there was more. People around the world were attracted not only to Ali’s athleticism and intensity but also to his political stances.

By refusing to be drafted into the army and participate in the Vietnam War, Ali faced serious consequences -- including financial loss, a prison sentence and being stripped of his title -- to do as he believed. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he famously said. “I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation.” He was a compassionate man who had the courage to show solidarity with his fellow human beings.

A sincere Muslim and man of peace, Ali, like many of us, was troubled by the irresponsible association of Islam and violence. What really hurt him, he said after the 9/11 terror attacks, was that "the name Islam is involved, and Muslim is involved and causing trouble and starting hate and violence. Islam is not a killer religion. Islam means peace. I couldn’t just sit home and watch people label Muslims as the reason for this problem." And he was right about what would eventually become a discriminatory campaign against a community of 1.7 billion believers around the world.

At a time when humanity faces bigger challenges than ever and seemingly lacks the courage to tackle pressing issues head-on, world leaders could use some inspiration from the Greatest, whose message of peace, freedom and solidarity inform some of Turkey’s key policies.

Today, Turkey is the world’s largest refugee host and third-largest provider of humanitarian assistance. Having adopted an open-door policy toward Syrian refugees in 2011, the country has welcomed more than 3 million people fleeing from war and spent about $10 billion to meet their needs. Syrian refugees continue to enjoy free health care, education and professional training opportunities. Unfortunately, the international community’s contributions have accounted for a fraction of Turkey’s humanitarian budget.

The strongest societies in the world are communities of equals. Ali, as a member of America’s Muslim minority, suffered from injustice, discrimination and mistreatment. Keeping in mind his experiences, Muslim nations must take steps to ensure that members of Christian and Jewish communities feel included. Since 2002, Turkey has spent millions of dollars to rebuild decaying churches and synagogues, which we consider a crucial part of our heritage. In 2007, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, a medieval Armenian church, re-entered service after comprehensive restoration work. Last year, the Grand Synagogue of Edirne, one of Europe’s largest Jewish temples, was reopened after being restored.

There will be a considerable amount of talk about Muhammad Ali’s athletic accomplishments. But it is important to keep in mind that his passing doesn’t mean his ideas cannot take hold. The issues Ali raised decades ago remain relevant. As such, the right way to honor the People’s Champion is to put his vision of liberty, equality and solidarity to work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net