Most Inspiring Person Award 2001
Boxing great and American Muslim
Though he hasn't fought a match in 20 years, boxing legend Muhammad Ali played a crucially important role in 2001. After September 11, when Osama bin Laden suddenly became the most famous Muslim in the world, Ali stepped forward and offered the world a dramatic, competing vision of who Muslims were. "I am a Muslim," he declared. "I am American."
Ali, who unnerved the sports world when he announced his conversion to Islam in 1964, asked his fellow Americans not to turn their anger into vengeance on ordinary Muslims. Visiting Ground Zero in the week following the attacks, Ali echoed the voices of President Bush and other moderate Muslims in explaining that Islam is a religion of peace. "If the culprits are Muslim, they have twisted the teachings of Islam," he said. "Whoever performed or is behind the terrorist attacks in the United States of America does not represent Islam. God is not behind assassins."
Ali's brief statements were all the more affecting because of the physical challenge of making them. For he now also stands as an inspiration to those who, like him, suffer from Parkinson's or other debilitating diseases. Repeatedly in recent years, Ali has shown that the disease could not stop him from making enormous contributions to America and the world. People around the world were moved when the aging champ lit the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta games. Muhammad Ali finished this memorable year by again lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta to launch its cross-country journey to Utah for the 2002 Winter Games, a great athlete's gesture of hope for a more peaceful and united world.
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