Limits On Muslims’ Sportswear Or Political Speech? Between Olympic Ideals And The Protest Legacies Of Muhammad Ali And Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

08/24/2016 04:05 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2016

Dalilah Muhammad’s triumph in the 400 meter women’s hurdles is being widely celebrated as historic as the first ever gold medal in the event for the United States at the Rio Olympics. As the first American Muslim woman to win a gold medal, her achievement is even more significant in the context of a divisive political climate rife with racial tension and #blacklivesmatter protests and anti-Muslim xenophobia.

The striking image of medal winning African American Muslim women such as Dalilah Muhammad and Ibtihaj Muhammad representing the U.S. in Rio highlights the gaps between the Olympic ideals and American social realities. Much of the media focus on these two young African American Muslim Olympians has been on the limits of women’s dress code in sports and/or Islam; in contrast, the controversy surrounding Team USA gymnast Gabby Douglas has been about the limits of political speech and the racist and sexist double standards in our collective scrutiny of the behavior of athletes.

Twenty years ago, Muhammad Ali raised a trembling arm to light the fuse to the Olympic cauldron in the opening ceremony in Atlanta, followed by an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington speech. The widely-broadcast image evoked a kind of fulfillment of King’s dream in the national embrace of Ali as an icon of racial harmony and goodwill but critics argued that Ali’s image had been coopted and the radical politics of the People’s Champ were being sanitized and glossed over.

Outside the stadium, civil rights leaders led a small protest against the Georgia state flag with its Confederate stars and bars fluttering over games that celebrated human equality but the media did not cover the protest. At half-time during the Olympic basketball final, Ali was presented with a replacement gold medal for the one he had purportedly flung into the Ohio River 36 years earlier precisely to protest the gaps between the Olympic ideal of equality and the persistent American system of racial inequality.

Only a few weeks before the 1996 opening ceremonies in Atlanta, another African American Muslim athlete, Denver Nuggets Mahmoud Abdul Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson), was facing the same kinds of vilification in the media and the damage to his career for his political and religious beliefs that had made Muhammad Ali the most reviled name in American sports during the Viet Nam war. In addition to leading his team in points and assists that season, Abdul Rauf earned the distinction of being the first player to be punished in relation to conduct during the national anthem since the two US Olympic sprinters who had raised “black power” fists in 1968.

While some saw the American flag as a symbol of freedom, the Nuggets star explained, others saw it as a symbol of “tyranny and oppression.” His NBA suspension for sitting lasted one game; ultimately, the NBA was satisfied with Abdul Rauf standing during the anthem even if he cupped his hands and prayed for the oppressed instead. The media attention quickly died down but the damage to his career had lasting effects. He was traded to the Sacramento Kings although officials denied there was a connection to the suspension. The Denver Nuggets received more than two hundred phone calls from fans threatening to boycott games if Abdul-Rauf remained with the team as well as the potential loss of two sponsors, including Nike.

Abdul Rauf, born Chris Jackson, grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi and overcame abject poverty and Tourrette Syndrome to become one of the NBA’s most celebrated free throw shooters. An introspective and intelligent person with a deep commitment to social justice, in 1995 Abdul Rauf began silently stretching in the locker room until the national anthem was completed as a symbolic act of dissent against the abuses of the U.S. government within and beyond its borders. Although he had not been standing for the anthem for over sixty games without attracting much attention, a local reporter broke the story and it made national headlines on March 12, 1996. Overnight, Abdul Rauf went from media darling to one of the most controversial players in the league, receiving an onslaught of death threats and racist and Islamophobic hate mail with epithets instructing him to “Go back to Africa.” Sports cartoonists satirized Abdul-Rauf by caricaturizing him with Arab facial features: a big, hooked nose, heavy-lidded, sunken eyes, and a lengthened, scraggly beard.

The Abdul Rauf-anthem controversy sparked a national debate: Can dissent also be an act of patriotism? Do Americans, and especially minorities, have the freedom to refuse to salute the flag or must we salute the flag out of gratitude for our freedoms? The vitriolic reaction to Muslim athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Abdul Rauf at the time of their protest illustrates how the anxieties about Muslims being un-American existed long before 9-11 or Trump’s bid for the presidency, though nativist xenophobia intensifies in moments of national crisis and affects to all minorities, not only Muslims. As #HandOverHeart began trending on twitter last week with hundreds of angry cyberbullies piling on American gymnast Gabby Douglas, 19, for being “disrespectful,” “unpatriotic,” and “un-American,” fans tweeted Gabby was “getting the Mahmoud Abdul Rauf treatment.”

Earlier this year, Phil Jackson brought Abdul Rauf’s name back into sports headlines with a tweet that many interpreted as a jab against Stephen Curry, the NBA’s first unanimously elected MVP, when he compared the players and lamented Abdul Rauf’s “short but brilliant run in NBA.” In 1996, however, Phil Jackson was part of the chorus condemning Abdul Rauf for his lack of patriotism, a moment captured in my film, By the Dawn’s Early Light, about the anthem controversy. (Watch the full film here.) “I like my players to line up and be respectful,” Jackson explains as the camera pans to a line of Chicago Bulls players under a flag, including a fidgety Dennis Rodman and Michael Jordan, then the face of Nike. Abdul Rauf responded to such criticism claiming he never intended to be “disrespectful to those who regard the national anthem as a sacred ceremony.  It is my understanding that 100 percent honesty and sincerity is the requirement for participation in the national anthem. As such, I chose not to disrespect anyone and remain in the locker room.”

The ritual performance of patriotism in sports has a long and complex history but often invocations of respect and good sportsmanship in the criticism of black athletes who have taken a political stand becomes a way of talking around race, concealing the racial double standards in our hyper-scrutiny of black athletes and their behavior, as we saw with the forgiving language invoked by officials in Rio during Lochte-gate.

Sometimes, however, it is the courage to challenge the political status quo that we collectively celebrate as quintessentially American, even if that courage is embodied by an unlikely hero, an athlete who is black and Muslim, as in the case of Muhammad Ali. In a sense, the story of the evolution of Abdul-Rauf’s image is the inverse of Muhammad Ali. By the nineties, Ali, once demonized for his Islam, had been transformed into a national icon in part through the media’s muting of his Muslim identity and his politics. Abdul-Rauf, on the other hand, once heralded as an icon of the American dream, as the ‘‘Mississippi Son,’’ came to represent a threatening, dangerous, and foreign Islam by the media’s muting his identity as an African American.

As a new generation of extraordinarily talented African American Muslim athletes returns home from Rio this week, I hope their athleticism will be celebrated in the fullness of who Dalilah Muhammad and Ibtihaj Muhammad are. And I hope the national and international conversation moves from debating the limits of Muslim sportswear to the kinds of limits on what Muslims can express politically, a step towards closing the gaps between our ideals of racial and political tolerance and our reality.

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