Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Saturday said those mourning Muhammad Ali must remember the boxer’s deep Muslim faith.
“I’ve been all over this country, and I’m talking to Muslim people who say, ‘You know, Bernie, our kids are now afraid,’ ” he said during a press conference in Los Angeles. “I say to those people, one of the great American heroes in modern American history was Muhammad Ali, a very proud Muslim.
“Don’t tell me how much you love Muhammad Ali and yet you’re going to be prejudiced against Muslims in this country,” he said.
Sanders cited Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War as an example of the boxer’s bravery and integrity in and out of the ring.
“The reason that Ali struck a chord in the heart of so many Americans was not just his great boxing skill,” he said. “It was his incredible courage. At a time when it was not popular to do so, Ali stood up and said, ‘I am opposed to the war in Vietnam and I’m not going to fight in that war.’
“And that incredibly courageous decision cost him three and a half years of his prime fighting life. But he chose to stand by his ideals, his views. What a hero. What a great man.”
Ali died late Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz., following respiratory problems complicated by his long-standing battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 74.
Born Cassius Clay, he shocked Americans by winning the heavyweight title in 1964 and changing his name to Muhammad Ali the following day.
Ali announced he had joined the Nation of Islam and would later oppose the Vietnam War on racial, religious and social grounds.
“My conscience won’t let me go and shoot my brother, some darker people, some poor hungry people, in the mud, for big powerful America,” he said in one famous interview. “And shoot them for what?”
Ali was stripped of the world heavyweight title over his stance, but the fighter remained firm and would ultimately reclaim the championship twice more.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Saturday praised Ali, calling him a “truly great champion” and a “wonderful guy” in a Twitter post.
Ali late last year warned against Islamophobia after Trump suggested a temporary ban on allowing Muslims to enter the U.S.
“True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion,” he said in a statement that never mentioned Trump’s name.
“Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided, perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”