Two Fighters. Two Muslims.
The similarities between Mohamed Abdelaziz and Muhammad Ali might not, at first, seem so striking. The men lived in completely different corners of the planet, spoke different languages and pursued, on the face of it, different dreams.
Mohamed Abdelaziz, who died last Tuesday aged 68, was President of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a partially recognized state in northwest Africa that claims control over the disputed Western Sahara region. For 41 years it has been under the hegemony of Morocco, which fought a brutal war against Mauritania, which pulled out in 1979, and the Polisario Front, an Algeria (and Soviet Union)-backed guerrilla force which managed, despite being outnumbered around six to one, to broker a 1991 ceasefire with a referendum on self-determination for the indigenous Sahrawi people to follow the next year.
That referendum has still not happened. Western Sahara is widely known as Africa’s Last Colony, with its people split between a violent Moroccan occupation and Algerian refugee camps. Between them is the world’s second-largest wall. I traveled to the latter last February to write about the frozen conflict, visiting those who fought, and continue to fight, for an independent Sahrawi state.
The more I saw the worse it got. Vast, Max Max-esque junkyards marked the camps’ edges, outside which goats bleated vainly, trapped in small cages, in the worlds’ largest desert. Beyond them, the territory is littered with up to ten million landmines. Life is hot, and torpid. Politically, little has happened since the ceasefire. The Polisario, which Abdelaziz also chaired, makes repeated threats to return to arms. But it, and everyone else, knows a second war would be self-genocide.
The world mourns Muhammad Ali. The death of Mohamed Abdelaziz will be commemorated by far fewer people, but with no less intensity: a 40-day mourning period has been declared in Western Sahara and condolences have been offered up and down Africa. Both men’s lives can, and should, be an inspiration to anybody.
Abdelaziz and Ali both suffered longtime illnesses, and succumbed within a few days of each other. Ali was born in 1942; Abdelaziz 1947. Both men spent decades fighting for freedom for their people. Both spoke proudly of their Africanness. And both were Muslims.
Abdelaziz was born a Muslim. Ali converted from the Baptist Church having been inspired byMalcolm X and the Nation of Islam. Abdelaziz, as with almost every Sahrawi, was a Sunni; Ali, who converted in 1964 and changed his name from Cassius Clay, later embraced Sufism, an inward searching, mystical splinter of the Sunni faith.
America rarely reflected on Ali’s faith: he was, after all, the most famous sportsman on earth at a time when the US Civil Rights movement was indelibly linked to the southern Christianity he spurned. Back then there was little public outcry against Muslims. Islam, in the United States, was the Nation. Millions hated it largely because it was black, not Muslim.
Ali, however, was devout. And remained so until his death. “He never missed prayer,” Hana Yasmeen Ali, the third-youngest of his nine children, said in 2005. “And if he did, he felt guilty about it. He probably hasn’t actually done the formal prayer for a few years regularly-five times a day. He just takes moments out when he sits in his chair and prays. And he reads constantly.
“His life is like a prayer,” she added. “God is constantly on his mind. It’s not in a preachy way. It’s subtle, but you feel like you’re in the presence of angels around him.”
During that time, when Ali, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others fought, oftentimes disparately, for a racially equal US, Abdelaziz was becoming politically active in the Arab Socialist movement. He was a secular nationalist who walked a tight line with his people, some of whom wanted — and still want — to place Islam at the forefront of the Sahrawi fight for freedom.
He had plenty of detractors, too. Many think he was too quiescent; too trusting of the international community. When I visited the camps several Sahrawis told me that you need only look at the state of the place too see Abdelaziz’s electionless premiership, which lasted just three months shy of 40 years, was a failure. It will be interesting to see whether his successor, Khatri Addouh, will pursue a different, perhaps more bellicose, path.
Ali has never been bettered. The sport of boxing — and arguably sport — has not seen an orator, showman or champion as electric, or outspoken, since. He was flawed, for sure, taunting opponents and voicing opinions on racial division that, while a progeny of a cruel society, were febrile and ill-informed. But in later life he rejected the hardliners of the Nation and embraced the unity at the heart of civil rights.
“Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams — they all have different names, but they all contain water,” he said. “Just as religions do — they all contain truths.”
Truth, in Ali’s mythologized life, can be hard to nail down. There are so many stories, so much legend and ephemera that the quiet, pious Ali has been lost to the roaring, poetic, chimeric Ali, who downed Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston, refused to join the war in Vietnam and who, it is said, hurled his 1960 Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River.
Abdelaziz’ life has often been lived far from the international gaze. But it is also shrouded in mystery. As the chief of a quasi-communist state in the desert, that’s not altogether surprising. Last year I met his now-widow, Khadijah Hamdi, the SADR’s culture minister, who told me about the Sahrawis’ long struggle for a nation, and how she had faith in the long game she and her husband had cleaved to for so long. I doubted how truthful she was being with me. War would be futile and the world has largely forgotten Western Sahara’s plight. Hamdi and Abdelaziz’ position now is similar to that of 1991.
Ali, too, never lived to see equality in America. Not for blacks, and not for Muslims. Before he died he even took a swing at Donald Trump, penning a statement entitled ‘Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States.’ He also condemned those who commit violence in the religion’s name.
“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” he wrote. “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.”
It is up to us all to continue the work of both men: to free races, religions and entire peoples from tyranny, persecution and prejudice. Ali and Abdelaziz fought their entire lives. It is a fight that will continue far beyond their deaths. But with so much division in today’s world, it is the most important fight we face today.