By Daniel Trotta and Alex Dobuzinskis
NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The death of boxing great Muhammad Ali cost American Muslims perhaps their greatest hero, a goodwill ambassador for Islam in a country where their minority faith is widely misunderstand and mistrusted.
“We thank God for him,” Talib Shareef, president and imam of the Masjid Muhammad mosque in Washington, told a gathering of Muslim leaders who honored Ali in Washington on Saturday, a day after he died in a Phoenix hospital at age 74. “America should thank God for him. He was an American hero.”
From the turmoil of civil rights and black Muslim movements of the 1960s to the darkest days after Sept. 11, 2001, Ali was a hero that U.S. Muslims could share with part of the American mainstream.
Muslims remembered Ali for many familiar reasons, hailing him as a champion of social justice, a lifelong supporter of charitable works and an opponent of the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Moreover, they said, he was a Muslim that a largely Christian country came to admire, even if Ali shocked and scared much of U.S. society after he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay in 1964.
“When we look at the history of the African-American community, one important factor in popularizing Islam in America is Muhammad Ali,” Warith Deen Mohammed II, son of the former Nation of Islam leader, said in a statement.
With some 3.3 million adherents in the United States, Muslims make up about 1 percent of the population, largely immigrants and African-Americans who have embraced the religion.
Although they have integrated into society better than some of their brethren in Europe, American Muslims face hardships even as the United State grows demographically less white and less Christian.
Since 2001, they have suffered backlash from those Americans who equate all Muslims with those who have attacked civilians out of some jihadist cause.
Decades before, black Muslim leaders such as Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X rattled the white establishment as religious and ethnic minorities who demanded equality for their people. Elijah Mohammad preached a version that denounced white oppression and opposed integration of the races.