The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan travelled to Louisville, Kentucky this Thursday specifically to attend the acclaimed American boxer Muhammad Ali’s funeral ceremony and service. However, as a result of series of alleged “snubs” against the President, Erdoğan cut his visit short, returning prematurely before the funeral service, which was held on Friday.
Initially, Erdoğan was scheduled to give a speech during the funeral service on Friday, and he also had requested that the Turkish Director of Religious Affairs Mehmet Görmez be allowed to recite a verse from the Qu’ran during the service.
However, citing time limitations after two new speakers were added to the program, Ali’s family and funeral organizers announced that President Erdoğan’s speech had been cancelled, along with the speech planned for the Jordanian King Abdullah II. Bob Gunnell, the family spokesman claimed: “It’s not about who they are, it’s about the fact that we just don’t have room on the program for them.”
Rubbing extra salt to the wound, at one point during the funeral ceremony on Thursday, President Erdoğan attempted to move forward to place a piece of cloth from the Kaaba on the coffin when funeral organizers blocked him, reportedly whispering “We’ll put it on later.”
As a result of these alleged “snubs”, including the denial of Erdoğan’s request that the Minister of Religious Affairs read from the Qu’ran, Erdoğan cut his visit short and returned to Turkey within 24 hours of his arrival in America.
However, in retrospect, it was probably better in the long run that President Erdoğan didn’t attend the funeral service on Friday, after Michael Lerner’s head-turning speech.
Speaking at the interfaith funeral ceremony essentially scripted and organized by The Champ himself before he died, Berkeley-based Rabbi Michael Lerner took the opportunity to praise Muhammad Ali for his activism during his life, and to also challenge the audience and viewers to follow in his footsteps in pushing for social change.
Michael Lerner commented on the toxic political climate in America this election season, stating “We will not tolerate politicians or anyone else putting down Muslims and blaming Muslims for a few people,” likely referencing Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s infamous calls for a complete ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.
Lerner went on the praise Ali for his refusal to conscript in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, and stated “So I want to say, how do we honor Muhammad Ali? And the answer is the way to honor Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today.”
“It’s up to us to continue that Ability to speak truth to power. We must speak out, refuse to follow a path of conformity to the rules of the game in life.”
And the Rabbi did just that, going on to call out racial and economic injustices in America. “Tell the 1% who own 80% of the wealth of this country that it’s time to share that wealth. Tell the politicians who use violence worldwide and then preach nonviolence to the oppressed that it’s time for them to end their drone warfare and every other kind of warfare, to close our military bases around the world, to bring the troops home.”
“Tell those who invented mass incarceration that it’s time to create an — a living income for everyone. Tell judges to let out of prison the many African Americans swept up by racist police and imprisoned by racist judges.”
But the Rabbi didn’t stop there, met with multiple ovations, he went on to call for justice in international issues as well: “Tell Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the way to get security for Israel is to stop the occupation of the West Bank and help create a Palestinian State.” And perhaps most shockingly, and conspicuous in its timing, the Rabbi asserted: “Tell the leaders of Turkey to stop killing Kurds.”
President Erdoğan has already had a string of somewhat awkward visits to America in the past months, reflecting the shaky state of relations between the U.S. and their historically close NATO ally. In late March for example, clashes broke out between protesters, journalists and Erdoğan’s security guards at the Brookings Institute in Washington where the President was due to give a speech.
Washington and Ankara’s relations have grown ever more unstable this past year, due to the confluence of Turkey’s increased operations against Kurdish separatist groups in the southeast of the country, and the United States’ simultaneous support for Syrian Kurdish groups as the most effective force in the battle against ISIS in Syria. U.S. leaders also appear to be growing increasingly uneasy with Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies with the intensifying clamp down on the free press in Turkey.
Rabbi Lerner’s speech was not the first time a prominent American public figure has criticized Turkish policies in the southeast, which have claimed hundreds of civilian lives. Prominent academic and intellectual Noam Chomsky has also issued a series of harsh criticisms of the Turkish government’s dealings with the Kurds and joined over a thousand Turkish and international Academics in calling for peace in Turkey’s East.
However, Rabbi Lerner’s speech may have been the first time President Erdoğan came into such close proximity of an outspoken American critic of Turkey’s policies in the East.
It is unclear if Rabbi Lerner would have gone ahead with his “stop killing the Kurds” comments had President Erdoğan been in attendance at the funeral service. As the funeral speakers had been lined up even before the boxer’s death, I think it is entirely possible that Lerner planned to make those comments, essentially addressing the Turkish President who was supposed to be in attendance.
At any rate, the events at Ali’s funeral reveal that criticisms of Turkish policies in the Kurdish territories may be expanding beyond what President Erdoğan would call the marginal circles of “so-called intellectuals” and may be gaining more traction in the American mainstream.
The presence of top-level members of the U.S. political elite at the funeral, including former President Bill Clinton and Senior Advisor to President Obama Valerie Jarrett, may suggest that following this close diplomatic call, Turkish and U.S. officials may eventually be forced to address the elephant in the room in their relations; are Kurdish groups destabilizing terrorists or freedom fighters on the frontlines in the battle against ISIS?