November 19, 2018

Muhammad Ali pleaded for Daniel Pearl’s life

When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped by Islamic extremists in January 2002, the most famous American Muslim of the day pleaded publicly for his release and to save his life.

“I appeal to you to show Daniel Pearl compassion and kindness,” Muhammad Ali implored Pearl’s abductors, who would behead the journalist in Pakistan after nine days of captivity, although his fate would not be known for another three weeks.

“Treat him as you would wish all Muslims to be treated by others,” entreated Ali, who died June 3, at 74. “Daniel should not become another victim of the ongoing conflict. It is my most sincere prayer that Daniel Pearl be permitted to return safely to his family. May Allah have mercy on us all.”

Daniel’s parents, Judea Pearl and his wife, Ruth, also asked Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, to intercede with the abductors.

“Farrakhan said, day after day, that he wasn’t ready, and when he was finally ready it was too late,” Judea Pearl, who was born in Israel, recalled on June 4.

By contrast, Pearl noted, “Ali did not hesitate a minute and issued a plea that only Satan could resist; it was published the next day in Pakistan. Ali further called me by phone and insisted on being invited to the party, once Danny was released.”

Instead of the anticipated celebration to mark the journalist’s hoped-for return, Ali and his wife were invited to attend the private memorial service on March 10, 2002, at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

At the service, which this reporter attended as a friend of the Pearl parents, Ali walked in slowly, showing clear signs of the degenerative Parkinson’s disease that eventually contributed to his death.

But he brightened as Judea Pearl mentioned Ali’s intercession for Daniel and lauded the great boxer as “a champion of humanity.”

Yet despite this noble gesture, and despite a Jewish grandson, whose bar mitzvah he attended, the mercurial Ali could also show a different side.

Following his conversion to Islam, Ali at times slammed Zionism and Israel. For instance, during a 1974 tour of the Middle East, he declared, “the United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism.”

On a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Israel, Ali was quoted in news reports as saying, “In my name and the name of all Muslims in America, I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.”

And although he counted two Jews — sports newscaster Howard Cosell (born Howard Cohen) and actor Billy Crystal — among his closest friends, Ali was not above the occasional anti-Semitic dig.

After making his boxing comeback in 1970, Ali responded to speculation that he would next take on Joe Frazier by declaring,”To those who might want it, the fight will come. All those Jewish promoters — they’ll see that it comes off.”