Tuesday 17 May 2022

Mesut Özil: The Muhammad Ali of Our Time


I completely agree with CJ Werle here: International football superstar Mesut Özil is the Muhammad Ali of our time, risking reputation and livelihood to speak out forcibly against the world’s worst human rights abuses.

Whereas millions of ethnic Uyghurs have been forcibly disappeared in a network of Chinese-government-run concentration camps, torture dungeons, and possibly mass graves, international football superstar Mesut Özil, a German-born Muslim, has been forcibly erased from the world’s premier football league and international attention for daring to speak out against Beijing.

It all started with a tweet posted on December 13, 2019, when he condemned China for its persecution of Uyghur Muslims, and the governments of Muslim majority countries for their complicit silence.

“Qur’ans are burned, mosques are closed, madrassas are banned, religious scholars are killed one by one. The brothers are forced into the camps. Chinese men are settled in their families instead of them. The sisters are forced to marry Chinese men,” reads an excerpt from Özil’s tweet. “Despite all this, the Ummah of Prophet Muhammad is silent. Doesn’t object/say anything.”

Friends and advisers had warned Özil that there would be consequences for speaking out.

According to the New York Times, friends and advisers had warned Özil –– who was then under contract with the English Premier League (EPL) team Arsenal –– that there would be consequences, but Özil felt compelled by his religious faith to act. He ignored their warnings. The consequences came swift.

Not only did Arsenal distance itself from their star player, saying, “The content published is Özil’s opinion,” and that as a football club, it adhered to the “principle of not involving itself in politics” –– which is nonsense, given Arsenal has publicly expressed support for an array of political causes, including Black Lives Matter. In response to Özil’s activism, China disappeared Özil’s name from video games, social media, and Internet search engines, while threatening to ban telecasts of Arsenal’s future fixtures.

Ten months later, Özil’s name also disappeared from Arsenal’s rostered list of players, ending his time in the world’s top football competition with a £13,975,000 annual salary. Arsenal traded him to Turkish club Fenerbahce in the 13th ranked league in Europe.

His fall couldn’t have been greater. In 2018, he became the world’s highest paid player in history, earning £350,000 per week in the top-flight EPL, but today he pulls in only a fraction of that, roughly £60,000 per week, playing in the second-rate Süper Lig. Barely six months after he condemned China for its persecution of Uyghur Muslims, Adidas ended its seven-year, £22 million sponsorship deal with Özil.

Notably, Adidas has been accused of profiting from the mass detainment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, where detainees have been forced into picking cotton.

Speaking out against what the United States government has now identified as “genocide” has exacted a massive financial and emotional cost on Özil. Yet he remains undeterred, using his massive social media following to raise awareness about the brutalities endured by Palestinians under Israeli occupation, Syrians under Russian bombardment, and Yemenis caught in the middle of a proxy war.

Özil prayed for the “safety and well-being of our Muslim brothers and sisters in India.”

To celebrate the Islamic holy night of Lailat al-Qadr on April 27, Özil prayed for the “safety and well-being of our Muslim brothers and sisters in India,” calling the Indian government’s crackdown on the religious minority “shameful” before asking, “What is happening to human rights in the so-called largest democracy in the world?”

Clearly, Özil is undeterred and unintimidated by India’s growing economic clout. He fears no man and no government. He answers only to God and his own moral compass.

While far from a perfect analogy, Özil is the Muhammad Ali of our era, and like “the Greatest” heavyweight boxing champion of all time, he has risked reputation and livelihood in speaking out forcibly against the world’s worst human rights abuses.

Ali told reporters back in 1966, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” which was followed with, “No Vietcong ever called me [N-word],” a line that perfectly couched his ethical opposition to an unjust foreign war in support for civil rights at home. Sixteen months later on June 20, 1967, Ali was sentenced to 5 years in prison for refusing to be inducted into the US armed forces.

Although he managed to stay out of prison while appealing his case to the US Supreme Court on religious grounds, he was stripped of his boxing titles and denied the right to fight professionally for nearly four years. But the Supreme Court overturned his conviction and his actions as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War made him an icon of the American civil rights movement.

It’s impossible to imagine the late Muhammad Ali isn’t an inspiration to Özil in an era of hyper-commercialism.

It’s impossible to imagine the late Muhammad Ali isn’t an inspiration to Özil in an era of hyper-commercialism, where very few athletes are willing to put principles before profit.

Most live by the mantra quipped by NBA hall of famer Michael Jordan, who explained away his refusal to endorse Democrat Harvey Gantt, an African American, in a 1990 US Senate race against Republican Jesse Helms, a notorious and vicious racist, by saying, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Well, China buys football merchandise and EPL products, too –– but Özil dared to use his global following to stand up against the abuse committed by Beijing against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. He knew that he would have to write off the world’s largest economy as a market, including his six million followers on the Chinese social media network Wiebo and his fan club there, which boasted more than 50,000 signed-up members.

He knew that “he might become too toxic even for any club with Chinese owners, or sponsors eager to do business there,” reported the New York Times.

With the world bedeviled and besieged by intractable conflicts, fledgling and ongoing genocides, and the hate that flows from rising ultranationalist impulses, we need the likes of Mesut Özil and Muhammad Ali more than ever.


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