Thirty-five years ago, the self-proclaimed "greatest" heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) visited the South Asian nation of Bangladesh, then only seven years old at the time, born of a deadly civil war in 1971. In February 1978, after he had lost the heavyweight title to Leon Spinks, Ali journeyed to Bangladesh with his wife Veronica for a week-long tour.
According to a documentary made of his trip called “Muhammad Ali Goes East: Bangladesh, I Love You,” Ali initially balked at the idea of traveling to the other side of the world, fearing the public's reaction to his recent defeat in the ring. (Ali wore dark sunglasses not only to protect himself from the sweltering Bengal heat, but also to hide the swelling in his eyes -- a brutal gift from Spinks.) However, Ali need not have worried.
Some 2 million delirious fans greeted Ali's arrival at the airport in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. During his stay in Bangladesh, Ali went to some of the country's most scenic areas, including the Sundarbans, a world-famous mangrove forest, tiger preserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site; the splendid Sylhet Tea Gardens; the beautiful lakeside town of Rangamati; and the coastal district of Cox's Bazaar. The champ even received Bangladeshi citizenship, courtesy of a passport, which prompted him to quip: “If I get kicked out of America, I have another home.”
Perhaps the highlight of Ali's visit occurred at Dhaka Stadium, where he staged a “boxing match” with a 12-year-old Bengali boy who “knocked him out” (to huge cheers and laughs). Ali was also awarded a plot of land in the aforementioned Cox's Bazaar and had a stadium named in his honor. In the documentary, Ali speaks of returning to Bangladesh and building a home there, declaring “If you want to go to heaven, come to Bangladesh.”
By the late 1970s, Muhammad Ali's boxing career was approaching an end, but he had ascended to the role of global icon, perhaps the most famous and recognizable man on the planet. Still a controversial and polarizing figure in the U.S., Ali generally attracted waves of admiration in most foreign countries largely for his explicit opposition to the Vietnam War, but particularly in the Muslim world (for his embrace of Islam); and in sub-Saharan Africa (for his promotion of black pride and nationalism). Much to the relief of many Ali-watchers, the boxer had distanced himself from the violent, separatist rhetoric of the Nation of Islam (as his friend Malcolm X did prior to his assassination in 1965). In addition, in a dramatic reversal of his pariah status in the prior decade, Ali was now even embraced by the new occupant of the White House, President Jimmy Carter.
Indeed, Ali had by now become a 'global statesman' of sorts, making scores of visits throughout the world. Moreover, he fought some unforgettable boxing matches in underdeveloped countries: in Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo (the "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974), and in the Philippines (the "Thrilla in Manila" in 1975). As such, an impoverished, overwhelmingly Muslim Third World country like Bangladesh welcomed him as a hero.
But Ali mixed with some questionable characters during his many overseas jaunts, including such bloody despots as Uganda's Idi Amin and Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein (both of whom praised Ali no end). Bangladesh was no different. Indeed, Ali was invited to Dhaka by a man named Ziaur Rahman, the president of Bangladesh and a military officer who played an important role in the 1971 liberation war that created the country. Rahman, known popularly known as "Zia," remains a highly controversial figure in Bangladeshi history.
In the late summer of 1975, Bangladesh’s first president and the founder of the modern state, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was killed in a coup led by a group of military officers who had grown discontent with the corruption and inefficiency of Mujibur’s Awami League party. In the wake of the brutal regime change, Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad (one of Mujibur’s former cabinet ministers) became president and named Zia (who was not even 40 years old) as the chief of the army. But, in keeping with Bangladesh’s endless turmoil, Ahmad’s rule last only about three months – he was forced out in a counter-coup and Zia was placed under house arrest.
Shortly thereafter, yet another coup conducted by Lieutenant Colonel Abu Taher and other army officers, brought Zia back in charge of the army. However, in an act of blatant ingratitude, Zia arrested Taher on grounds that he might spearhead another revolt, and later had Taher executed. By April 1977, less than one year prior to Muhammad Ali’s arrival in his country, Zia became president, after he disposed of Justice Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem, who was, at best, a figurehead anyway.
With most of the military’s backing, Zia consolidated his power over Bangladesh by, among other things, clamping down on the media, almost doubling the size of the police force, ordering the mass arrest of dissidents, outlawing political parties and imposing martial law. (Most of the measures were later lifted or eased.) With respect to foreign policy, Zia deemphasized both India and the Soviet Union, while engaging with the Islamic world as well as the United States and Europe. Indeed, when Jimmy Carter viewed the Bangladesh/Ali documentary, he reportedly decided to increase financial aid to the impoverished country, despite Zia’s measures to compromise democracy there.
During his reign, Zia also raised the profile of Islam to a virtual "state religion," in defiance of the state’s secular constitution (somewhat similar to what his counterpart in Pakistan, Zia ul-Haq, was doing simultaneously). Zia of Bangladesh essentially attempted to equate Bangladeshi nationalism with Islam, in direct contrast to Mujibur who called for pan-Bengali nationalism that included Hindus both within Bangladesh and West Bengal in India. Further outraging liberals, secularists and the opposition Awami League, Zia allowed members of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party (some of whom were suspected war criminals) into his government, including senior cabinet posts. Zia even gave plum government positions to the very men who killed Mujibur. By May 1981, all the enmity Zia engendered caught up with him -- he was assassinated by a group of malcontent army officers
Zia’s lasting imprint on Bangladesh was likely his formation of the right-wing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which has battled with the Socialist-minded Awami League Party for control of the country ever since. Zia’s widow, Begum Khaleda Zia (now the boss of BNP), and Sheikh Hasina (the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur), have alternated holding power in Bangladesh for the past 30-plus years.
As for Ali, who is now 71, if he ever returned to Bangladesh and what happened to his piece of real estate in Cox’s Bazaar are both unclear.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.