Turkey's president went to Kentucky to speak at Ali's funeral. But then he couldn't.

The World
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C) attends the jenazah, an Islamic funeral prayer, for the late boxing champion Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. June 9, 2016.

Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan traveled to Kentucky to attend the funeral services of American boxing legend Muhammad Ali. He wanted to say a few words of remembrance at Friday's service, and organizers were reportedly expecting him.

They reversed the decision at the last minute, however, saying that mystery speakers had been added to the program and there was no longer time for foreign dignitaries to speak. Erdoğan decided to cut his trip short and did not attend the service at all. Bob Gunnell, a spokesman for the Ali family, said the funeral was not a political statement, but a reflection of Ali and how he lived.

Erdoğan was present, however, at Ali's Islamic funeral service on Thursday. Turkish media reported that Erdoğan's requests to lay a piece of cloth from Mecca on Ali’s coffin and recite verses from the Quran were denied. There was also a rumored disagreement between Erdoğan's presidential bodyguards and US Secret Service.

But what did Muhammad Ali signify to the Turkish people, such that their president would want to give a speech at his funeral?

Muhammad Ali visited Turkey for the first time in 1976. He was greeted at the airport in Istanbul by then-Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan — Erdoğan is said to be his protégé — and prayed at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. When Erbakan hugged him, Ali reportedly said “this is the first time a white leader has hugged me.”

The visit helped shape the Turkish people’s views of Ali. At a time when the religious population in Turkey had been outcast by the ultra-secular minority, many Turks saw Muhammad Ali as a hero for standing up against oppression and injustice, and as an icon for anti-colonialism and anti-racism.

Reporter Dalia Mortada in Istanbul saw the reactions of Turks to Ali’s death, and Erdoğan's trip to the US.   

“A lot of people were devastated,” Mortada says. “They reacted the way a lot of the Muslim world did.”

Indeed, Turks flocked to social media expressing their condolences or calling for a funeral prayer in absentia to honor Ali in Turkey. Ali's death has been a uniting factor for the deeply polarized Turkish public.

Still, many ridiculed Erdoğan for attending the funeral services in the US. People accused him of being untruthful to Ali’s message and trying to capitalize on the death of the Muslim hero.  

“After Erdoğan's statements promoting Ali’s conscientious objection to fighting the Vietnam War, many people scoffed, saying that if a Turkish boy or a man was drafted to fight against the Kurds in southeast Turkey, there was no way Erdoğan would be sympathetic,” Mortada says.