Despite knowing nothing about boxing (since I am a football fan), even I know that Muhammad Ali was “The Greatest”. Evidently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also knows that and he somehow attempted to turn the late Boxer’s funeral into his own personal propaganda show. Fortunately—most importantly for the sake of the late great boxer—Mr. Erdogan’s move failed. This attempt by the Turkish politician to use sports as a diplomatic tool is, however, not unprecedented and its utter failure is reminiscent of past moves by his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to mix sports and politics in the international realm. Just like the foreign policy of the party Mr. Erdogan founded, however, these moves have tended to make more enemies than friends—spelling disaster not only for Turkish foreign policy but the country’s international reputation as a whole.
After Muhammad Ali’s death on 3 June 2016, the Turkish president expressed his plan to attend the two-day funeral services on 9 and 10 June. Turkish columnist Rahmi Turan immediately wrote a column in the opposition daily Sozcu about how Mr. Erdogan’s ill-timed visit to the United States—coming just days after yet another deadly bombing hit Istanbul on 7 June—actually had historic precedence. While it did indeed seem strange at first that a leader should leave his country in the midst of such instability, a deeper look shows that the tenuous connection between Muhammed Ali and Turkey goes back exactly forty years to 1976. When Ali visited Istanbul in 1976 it was then assistant to the Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, who has been called “the father of Turkish Islamism”, that greeted the legendary boxer at the Istanbul airport. The Boxer’s visit was turned into a political stunt to further the interests of Turkish political Islam. Forty years on, history is repeating itself.
Mr. Erdogan wanted to use Muhammad Ali’s funeral in a cynical attempt to push his own image. He said Ali stood up for those who were oppressed, praising his stance against the Vietnam war…ignoring the fact that—as many Turkish Twitter users pointed out—anyone who refuses to take part in Erdogan’s war against Turkish Kurds risks being branded a traitor. He spent money that came out of taxpayers’ pockets to visit the United States, taking his wife, children, and son-in-law with him, as well as the head of the ministry of religious affairs. Some saw this as a glorified family vacation. Perhaps it was—but it didn’t have a happy ending. Al-Monitor noted how Mr. Erdogan’s visit “scored no points”: He was not allowed to make a speech, he was not allowed to place a cloth from the Kaaba on the casket, he was unable to deliver his gifts to Mr. Ali’s family, and the head of the Turkish ministry of religious affairs was not allowed to make a speech. Mr. Erdogan was not featured in any pictures during the proceedings, and decided to leave a day early. Opposition media suspected that the abrupt departure came because Mr. Erdogan learned that Rabbi Michael Lerner would speak out against Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish minority; Mr. Erdogan himself explained that staying was “unnecessary” because the ceremony would have “no religious aspect”. In the end the burial went on despite Mr. Erdogan’s absence and it was his fans—15,000 of them to be exact—who made up the majority of the crowd that sent “The Greatest” off.
Thankfully the world’s most famous boxer was sent off by his fans in a way befitting of the People’s Champion, despite the designs of one particular foreign head of state. Unfortunately, Mr. Erdogan’s actions were not befitting of the country he represents and this is yet another example of a politician who has let power go to his head. To attempt to use another person’s funeral for political gains is despicable and is certainly not in the spirit of Muhammad Ali or the religion of Islam; one can safely say that Mr. Erdogan lost by decision here after Ali’s final knockout.
May Muhammad Ali Rest In Peace, my condolences go out to his family, friends, and fans.