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Legendary boxer and champion of Palestinian cause Muhammad Ali dies at 74

June 4, 2016 4:06 P.M. (Updated: June 5, 2016 5:15 P.M.)
Muhammad Ali (AFP, file)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Muhammad Ali, former world heavyweight boxing champion, and champion of civil rights and the Palestinian cause died Friday, aged 74.

Family spokesperson Bob Gunnell confirmed Ali’s death late Friday evening, a day after he was admitted to a Phoenix-area hospital with a respiratory ailment.

Ali, a three-time world champion, had suffered a 32-year-long battle with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological condition that not only took away his legendary physical dexterity, but also his knack for powerful speech and impactful rhetoric.

Born as Cassius Clay to middle class parents in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali renounced what he called his “slave name,” and declared himself Muhammad Ali shortly after converting to Islam in 1963.

The then 22-year-old boxer, who already boasted an Olympic gold medal, soon became equally famous for his fiery commentary on social and political issues as he was for being the self-proclaimed “greatest of all time” in the ring.

At the height of the Vietnam War in 1967, Ali was drafted into the U.S. army, a service which he saw as morally indefensible, and immediately refused.

In a now famous interview regarding his refusal to serve in the war, Ali cited religious and moral reasons, saying "my conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America.”

Immediately after his draft refusal, he was stripped of his boxing title, convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.

Though he was released on appeal, Ali was still unable to box competitively or leave the country. As a result, he turned to his other talent, public speaking.

Lecturing on college campuses, Ali would engage in heated debates, where he used every opportunity to point out the hypocrisy of America’s practice of denying rights to blacks at home, yet ordering them to fight the country's battles abroad.

He famously expressed his dissatisfaction with American domestic and foreign policy in response to a white college student who challenged his draft avoidance, saying “my enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won't even stand up for me here at home."

In addition to being a symbol for black nationalists and anti war activists, Ali soon became a symbol of Palestinian solidarity.

Shortly after his retirement from the ring in 1974, Ali embarked on a tour of the Middle East, where he again criticized American foreign policy, telling reporters in Beirut, Lebanon, that “the United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism.”

On a visit later to two Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon, Ali was quoted as saying: “In my name and the name of all Muslims in America, I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.”

In 1985, Ali visited Israel in an effort to "arrange for the freeing of the Muslim brothers imprisoned by Israel", when some 700 Lebanese Shiites were detained in the Atlit camp in what was then Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon.

When asked about his preferred legacy, Ali once said: "I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him ... who stood up for his beliefs ... who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.”

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