Ten days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the world's second most famous Muslim stood in the rubble and defended his faith.
"Islam is not a killer religion," Muhammad Ali told rescue workers. "Islam means peace."
Before Sept. 11, the former heavyweight champion was undoubtedly the best-known adherent of the fastest growing (and, in the West, the least understood) of the world's religions. Since then, the "prettiest" face in boxing has been supplanted by that of Osama bin Laden as the most recognizable of Islam's roughly one billion believers.
The threat to the popular perception of Islam suggested by this shift is hard to miss. While "bin Laden" has become shorthand for a world's worth of anti-American sentiments, Ali in many ways is America. He's at once the America we'd like to be--the brash young fighter grown into a good-humored humanitarian--and the America we persist in believing we are: a torch-bearer for the nations, as Ali literally was at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Through four decades of veneration we have seen in Ali's celebrity the vaunted American ideal of tolerance writ large. Once he had proven himself on America's terms, the fact of his faith became beside the point. His cultural influence has shown us the mathematics of the melting pot: If America is Ali and Ali is Islam, then America could be Islam too. Or at least claim to be.
With bin Laden, though, the variables have changed. Since the World Trade Center tragedy, Americans for the most part have gone out of their way to prove that we are a people tolerant of religious difference. Yet the now-commonly heard confession of participation in "racial profiling" of Arab-Americans suggests that a deeply rooted distrust of religious difference generally and of Islam in particular has come to the surface. The few violent exceptions to the nationwide display of interfaith solidarity--the murder of a Sikh mistaken for a Muslim in Arizona, the shots fired at a mosque in Texas--only serve to underline this fact. To many, bin Laden, not Ali, "is" Islam now.
But to blame our misunderstanding of Islam on Osama bin Laden alone is merely a convenience, and a self-exonerating one at that. He gives us a good excuse. He lets us forget that the current perception of Islam as not just alien but specifically anti-American has been with us for some time. It can be traced back decades before last month's attacks, and its origins are not what might be expected. As much as such things can be identified with a single event, the perception of Islam as a force opposed to all that Americans value was born one day in 1964, with the simple act of a young man publicly professing his beliefs. His name was Cassius Clay--the man who would be Muhammad Ali.
"I am not a Black Muslim--that is a name made up by the white press," the 22 year-old Clay said. "It's not a legitimate name. The real name is 'Islam.'"
"Islam means peace," Clay explained with the very words he would use in the rubble nearly 40 years later. "It is a religion and there are 750 million people all over the world who believe it, and I'm one of them."
Clay was engaging that morning in 1964, as he always was, and spoke with a new earnestness. But the press remained skeptical. Public opinion is formed not on the front page but the sports page, and the sportswriters of the day began opining on religion in a way they had not before or have since. In the months following, columns and articles across the country resulted in a level of national awareness--if not understanding--of Islam that has only been rivaled in the last few weeks.
Reactions to Clay's conversion varied depending on each sportswriter's prior opinion of the loud-mouthed fighter. Some loathed him, some considered him the savior of a sport that had become boring and slow, and those general impressions were not changed. Yet there was a common note to the commentary. By announcing his conversion to Islam not as an up-and-comer, when perhaps it would have been his business, but as the Champion, Clay was seen to have stolen something from the American people.