By Thomas Hauser
In the 1960s and '70s, Muhammad Ali's most important contribution was to force an understanding of the divisions between black and white in American society and, ultimately, to help bridge that gap. Now there's a more-threatening chasm; the horrible hatred that exists between the Islamic and non-Islamic world.
Ali is only one man. But he might be the most recognized and most loved person on the planet. He has a reservoir of good will that draws upon the love and good feeling that he has earned from all races, all nationalities, and all religions.
More than a decade ago, Ali told me, "I got a plan. Someday I'm gonna hitchhike from New York to California with no money, no clothes except what I'm wearing, nothing. Then I'm going from California over to Asia, and from Asia to Europe and Africa and South America. I'm going all around the world with just my face to see how people greet me and take care of me. I could go just about any place in the world, knock on any door, and people would know me and let me in. I might even march on foot through Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, all them countries, and tell people to stop fighting and agree on a peace that's fair to everyone. Some people say that might be dangerous, but you gotta take risks. Columbus discovered America by sailing around the world when people thought he'd fall off. We got men on the moon by risking their lives."
It's only a fantasy. But what if Muhammad Ali were to walk through the troubled regions of the world today on a year-long journey to promote tolerance and understanding among all people?
It would be a dream-like quest. But Ali is a dreamer, as were Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela when they began their journeys.
Would it be dangerous? Absolutely. But Ali was one of the most reviled people in America in the 1960s. It was a decade of assassinations in the United States. John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X were all shot down. How did Muhammad respond to the threat?
"I'm an easy target," Ali said in 1965. "I'm everywhere; everybody knows me. I walk the streets daily and nobody's guarding me. I have no guns, no police. So if someone's gonna get me, tell them to come on and get it over with; if they can get past God, because God is controlling the bullet."
If Ali undertook a walk for peace, it would be the modern equivalent of the wanderings described in the holy books of the world.
The journey could begin with a statement: "I'm embarking on this undertaking as a way of speaking out against the hatred and violence that imperil the world. I'm not going to talk about political issues. I'm not going to take sides. I'm going to embrace every person I meet regardless of that person's religion, color, or ideology. My presence will speak for itself. My message is simple. Killing is wrong. Hating is wrong. Every person is deserving of love. Whatever happens to me on this journey, I want no blood shed or prejudice voiced at any time ever in my name."
To be successful, Ali's journey would have to be independent of governments and any other entity, religious or otherwise, no matter how well-intentioned that group might be. There would be no spin-masters; no spokespeople; no prearranged meetings with selected groups. It would be one man walking where he chose to walk; speaking without words; telling every person he met by virtue of his presence that hate has to be cleansed from peoples' hearts one person at a time.
In his inaugural speech, John F. Kennedy declared, "Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that, here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."
Were Ali to undertake the journey described above, he would truly be doing "God's work." He would be a prophet of peace.
But it's just a fantasy.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org