Muhammad Ali is dead at 74 years old. In the next few days, there will likely be a lot of looking back at Ali's athletic career — as one of the best boxers to ever live. But Ali was also Muslim, and in the last few months of his life, he refuted some of the Islamophobic rhetoric that has permeated the current presidential campaign.
Specifically, in December, a few days after Donald Trump suggested that there are no Muslim sports heroes, Ali struck back at the Republican presidential candidate's call to ban all Muslims from entering the US.
Ali said, in a statement first provided to NBC News, titled "Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States":
I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.
We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.
Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is.
It was nice to see a prominent figure like Ali stand up to Trump, who has built his political campaign on xenophobia and racism — by calling Mexican immigrants "rapists," arguing that a federal judge should exclude himself from a court case against Trump University solely because of his Mexican ethnicity, and, most relevant to Ali, proposing a ban on Muslims entering the US.
But it's also a bit tragic that we seem to expect prominent Muslim figures in the US to apologize for the actions of a few violent extremists who don't represent the majority of Muslim Americans.
We shouldn't expect all Muslims to apologize for the acts of a few extremists
After every terrorist attack, one of the most common refrains is to ask Muslim leaders to voice their opposition to this kind of violence. It's a standard that meets the basic definition of bigotry — the implication being that Muslims are suspected of supporting terrorism until they say otherwise, which is quite literally blaming an entire group for the actions of a few.
In a particularly egregious example, CNN host Don Lemon once asked Muslim American human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar if he supports ISIS.
But throughout his conversation with Lemon, Iftikhar made it clear why this shouldn't be the case. "It's important to not conflate the actions of a very few to a population of 1.7 billion people, which represents 20 percent of the world's population," he said. "When Christians commit acts of terror, we don't ask priests and pastors to go on national television and condemn these acts. But sadly, Muslim public intellectuals, thinkers, leaders, and Islamic scholars have that double standard that we have to deal with."
To put it another way, asking all Muslims to apologize for the actions of extremists is sort of like asking all Christians to apologize for the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan (which is quite literally America's original terrorist group). That's obviously absurd for Christians, but the same standard does not seem to apply for Muslim Americans.
The truth is that the overwhelming number of Muslims across the world do not back terrorist groups. As one example, ISIS's primary victims are Muslim. So it's really no surprise that in nations with significant Muslim populations, ISIS is reviled, as the Pew Research Center found.
So there's really no reason to think that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are in any way sympathetic to terrorism. Yet that seems to be the expectation — hence Ali's statement clarifying that he, a 74-year-old American boxer, doesn't support extremist violence.