This Rabbi's Speech at Muhammad Ali's Funeral Has the Perfect Argument Against Religious Discrimination

June 10th 2016

Alex Mierjeski

A Berkeley, California rabbi called for sweeping social change and an end to religious discrimination in a powerful eulogy at Muhammad Ali's memorial service in Louisville, Kentucky on Friday.

In a speech that touched on everything from the Vietnam war to the role of big banks in 2008's financial earthquake, Rabbi Michael Learner said he acted "as a representative of American Jews," when he spoke of the need to stand in solidarity with Black communities and the global Islamic community.

"We know what it's like to be demeaned; we know what it's like to have a few people who act against the highest values of our tradition, to then be identified as the value of the entire tradition," Learner said.

"We will not tolerate politicians or anyone else putting down Muslims, and blaming Muslims for a few people."

Learner's comments appeared to take issue with the accusations of religious extremism foisted upon the world's estimated 1.6 billion Muslims following a string of high-profile terrorist attacks in global capitals in over the past year. In response, the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, called for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the U.S., and suggested a policy requiring U.S. Muslims to carry identification cards.

Ali, who famously converted to Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam in 1964 (and later converted to Sunni Islam in the 1970s), was a prominent and influential figure in both the Black and Islamic communities around the world. As ESPN's Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib observed this week:

"He wore his blackness on one sleeve and his faith on the other in an era when people wanted both to be silent."

Learner lauded Ali not just as a sports champion, but as a champion of social change — in fact, it was Ali's devotion to fighting injustice that explained his appeal as an inspirational public figure.

Head over to Deadspin to check out a full video and (unedited) text of the speech.