Muhammad Ali Honored at CAIR-Sacramento Valley Annual Banquet
By Ras H. Siddiqui

Sacramento: The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) Sacramento Valley Chapter held its 14 th  Annual Banquet focusing on “Advancing Justice Challenging Hate” at the Sacramento State Student Union on Saturday, September 17, 2016.

Over 700 people were in attendance, the gathering reflective of the diversity of California’s capital city. Over the years this event has become the largest and highest profile fundraising program for the Muslim community in the greater Sacramento region and it is here that one usually gets the opportunity to meet and greet many individuals holding state office, elected officials and also those aspiring to lead or running for election. Many ethnic and interfaith groups also make it a point to attend. And this year when word got out that the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s daughter Hana was going to be present to receive the CAIR chapter’s highest honor for her father, many new people came to show their respect as well.

The formalities began when emcee for the evening Dr Masood Cajee welcomed everyone. As with every CAIR event the start was with the recitation from the Holy Qur’an followed by the English translation of the verses. CAIR –Sacramento Valley (SV) President Eyas Abdeen formally greeted everyone in his official capacity and elaborated on the theme for the evening.

Special guest speaker, California State Treasurer John Chiang next delivered an absorbing speech during which he shared the need for countering messages of hate and racism. Chiang shared some details of his years growing up and experiencing bigotry first hand as an Asian. He stressed the importance of perseverance and to stand up to such challenges. John is going to be running for the office of Governor of California in 2018 and he will not be the first or last Asian to do so.

CAIR- SV Executive Director Basim Elkarra next delivered a presentation on the work of the CAIR Chapter and how it is helping not only in defending the rights of Muslims locally but also in reaching out to the mainstream at the most difficult of times (unfortunately there have been a number of such occasions).  He also highlighted some other positive activities that have taken place thus far this year in Sacramento at the Capitol with CAIR in the lead.

Next up was the fundraising conducted by Altaf Husain- Vice Chair of the ISNA organization and a man with a great sense of humor, one who has the knack of making people part with their money (for good causes) and feeling really great about it in the process!

  A break for Magrib Prayer and dinner followed after which five CAIR awards were presented.  The first was the Distinguished Service Award presented to Mark and Miriam Farouk who have been the key players in CAIR-California’s Muslim Youth Leadership Program. The Fairness & Integrity in Media Award this year went to Bassam Asfoor Editor of The Crescent newspaper. Another Distinguished Service Award was presented to basketball legend Shareef Abdur Rahim, currently an Associate Vice President at the NBA.  At six foot nine inches in height Shareef was perhaps the only person at this event to tower over our own Basim Elakarra! And the youngest awardee of the evening  a sixth grade student,  Yasmine Nayabkhil received the Courage and Inspiration Award for not only standing up to bullying at school (for wearing a Hijab) but helping to get anti-bullying legislation to the California Governor’s desk!

And last but not least was the Champion of Justice Award which was presented in memoriam to boxing legend Muhammad Ali. This deserves a separate mention here because Ali was one of the most well-known and respected people on our planet for many reasons. His daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali was here to accept this award (accompanied by her husband Kevin Casey of UFC fighting fame).      

Hana said that it was wonderful to be here and thanked Basim and everyone at CAIR for inviting her.  “My father would be very proud. He absolutely loved and endorsed religion. He taught us to respect all faiths but he was in love with Islam and spirituality and the peace and beauty of it all. It really broke his heart to see you know the way the world was perceiving Muslims… He taught us very early in life that there are always all sorts of, different types of, adversity. People will always find something to be prejudiced about whether it is where you are from, your nationality, your faith/ religion, who your friends are. It is always going to be something.”

She said that he encouraged people to stand up for themselves, their faith and beliefs.  “He also taught us that service to others here on earth is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.  It was one of his favorite things. I knew at an early age that he did not just belong to us, to me - that he belonged to the world and that is why I wanted to be here tonight.” She added, “I just want to thank you for having me and I hope that you guys all will continue to fight and work hard for the causes that matter to you. He taught us that there are people all over the world taking a stand and fighting for what they believe but you don’t hear about it because nobody knows their name.”  She also said that had she known that this was a fundraiser, she would have brought some gloves or other memorabilia signed by her father to auction off here. 

Imam Zaid Shakir, a senior faculty member and Co-Founder of the Zaytuna College located in Berkeley, California delivered the keynote finale for the evening. Listening to him was a learning experience in itself because it appeared that he too was deeply inspired by Muhammad Ali and was the one to lead his huge memorial service in Louisville, Kentucky.

If there was one person who was able to best articulate the American Muslim dilemma today and put it in historical perspective at this  event,  it was Imam Shakir, an American Muslim who himself came of age during the civil rights struggle. “I don’t know of anyone with a larger heart than Muhammad Ali,” he said. If one wants to understand why people loved Ali so much, in Africa, Asia, in the ghettos, the barrios and even the suburbs, in all neighborhoods of America, it was because he was sincere. Many of us think that we have it hard because people look at us funny. Put yourselves in the shoes of Muhammad Ali. He took a stand and refused to be inducted into the army during a climate of hate and violence when many people were assassinated. He took a very courageous stand and he never backed down, said the Imam. “He never compromised his principles, because he knew he was right.” He said that if we are right in the difficult times which we face today then God will be with us. “God was with Muhammad Ali.” The Imam added that this blessing is available to the rest of us but we have to pay the price. We cannot just cow down and hide! We have to stand up like Ali stood up.” We have to push back. We have to defend what we believe in, said Shakir.  He said that American Muslims are not going anywhere because we were here before the country was here.

To conclude one has to acknowledge that these are very difficult times not just for the American Muslim community but Muslims worldwide. We live in the most powerful country in the world and as Imam Shakir stressed that “this is a free country” and we need to be able to express that freedom and make our voices heard.  Even though every bit of progress that American Muslims make today is set back by mysterious terrorists who appear out of nowhere like clockwork to counter all our work, there is still hope to be found in peaceful struggle.  Muhammad Ali was an excellent role model in that regard. Let us not forget that Ali lived in much more difficult times than we live in today. The horrible experience of black people in this country (and that of Native Americans) must never be forgotten.  But that atrocity inflicted on a people also produced leaders, people like Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Muhammad Ali. Peaceful pursuit of positive change and constitutional rights is the only answer for all today. 




Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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