In his speech on the threat of terrorism delivered to the nation on Sunday night, President Obama cautioned people to not conflate ISIS-inspired attacks with the religion of Islam. It seems like an obvious point, but in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, anti-Syrian immigrant hysteria, and violent vigilante attacks it was a critical one to make. Even George W. Bush knew to reiterate this in every sabre-rattling speech. Nothing does ISIS more favors than the idea that there is a war of “Islam vs. the West.”
President Obama said, “Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes. And, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.”
The reference to sports heroes in particular caught many people’s attention, including Republican front-runner Donald Trump. He tweeted, “Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?”
What in the name of Muhammad Ali is Donald Trump inhaling, other than the fumes of his own gaseous ego? I mean, this photo alone should have shut his perpetually pursed lips.
It would be easy—as many have already done—to list off the dozens of Muslim athletes and discuss how the United States has cheered them on for decades. Anyone is free to go to the very incomplete Wikipedia page. (The list fails to mention the great number of female Muslim athletes who complete at a world-class level.)
It should be obvious just how indescribably desolate the US sports landscape would have been without Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Hakeem Olajuwon, to name just a few. (Some put Shaq on this list as well, but in his own words, “I’m Muslim. I’m Jewish. I’m Buddhist. I’m everybody because I’m a people person.”) Yet Trump’s efforts to render them invisible also demonstrates just how powerful sports can be as an instrument against anti-Islamic bigotry.
Perhaps we should just ignore Trump’s idiocy, as we would any troll’s. However, the Trump troll is its own breed, like a cockroach that’s survived repeated blasts of Raid and has emerged stronger and more resistant to the normal remedies. Ignoring the person who is building a leading presidential campaign on a brand of racism being aped by the other candidates is an unaffordable luxury.
The best sports-related antidote to this toxicity would be to read Giant Steps, Kareem’s 1983 memoir. This book was my first introduction to what it means to be a Muslim. The all-time NBA scoring leader explained the difference between Sunni and Shia beliefs and outlined the gap between the Nation of Islam and classical texts. He wrote, “My choosing Islam was not a political statement; it was a spiritual statement.” He also writes about the role that spirituality plays in his life, giving him a sense of perspective and strength. Not knowing any Muslims as a kid, this was a life-changing read, and had a great effect on how I see the world. Bluntly, it is very difficult to support the bombing and demonization of an entire people when you understand them to be human.
When Muhammad Ali became a member of the Nation of Islam, and when Kareem announced that he was no longer Lew Alcindor, the world changed. In the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim dynamic so favored by the press, Ali—with his connection to Elijah Muhammad, opposition to war, and opposition to liberal integration—was seen as the dangerous threat. Kareem was viewed as joining the more peaceful version of Islam, the variant of the faith Ali eventually joined—to much mainstream praise—as well.
Now even that dynamic has been turned on its head. All of the ignorance and demonization shoveled onto the NOI a generation ago has long since shifted to those who practice the way of Kareem. But it’s all equally ignorant.
Everyone should read Giant Steps, if for no other reason than to break free from this mass hysteria that threatens to further bring the war home and turn it into a national purging.
Using sports to humanize people was a smart move by the president, just as it was smart for Bush to give Ali the National Medal of Honor, calling the champ “a man of peace” (while continuing to wage war). But we should also be clear that if someone is worth cheering, then their community is not worth criminalizing, and their people should not be killed indiscriminately. To think otherwise is not a road to any kind of peace or victory. It’s a recipe for endless bloodshed.
It’s also Trump’s only path to the White House: making us as savage as his rhetoric. This is why he wants a cloak of invisibility on roundly admired people. It’s the only way to brand them all as the enemy.