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“Are You Muslim?”: Muhammad Ali’s Son & Former Wife on their Detention & Interrogation at FL Airport

StoryFebruary 28, 2017
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Are you Muslim? Where did you get your name from? Those were the questions posed by immigration officials to the son of the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali earlier this month when he flew into Florida from Jamaica after attending a Black History Month event. When Muhammad Ali Jr. said he was a Muslim, authorities reportedly held him and questioned him for over two hours. Ali was traveling with his mother, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the boxing great’s second wife and mother of his four oldest children. She was also detained. We speak to them and their attorney, Chris Mancini.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Are you a Muslim? Where did you get your name from? Those were the questions posed by immigration officials to the son of the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali earlier this month when he flew in to Florida from Jamaica after attending a Black History Month event. When Muhammad Ibn Ali said he was a Muslim, authorities reportedly held him and questioned him for over two hours. Ali was traveling with his mother, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the boxing great’s second wife and mother of his four oldest children. She was also detained.

AMY GOODMAN: The incident occurred on February 7th, days after Trump signed the executive order banning people from seven majority-Muslim countries.

For more, we’re joined here in New York by Muhammad Ibn Ali and his mother, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, and their attorney, Chris Mancini.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: Thank you.

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I just went to Montego Bay also last week.

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: Really?

AMY GOODMAN: I flew in, back to the United States, and no one asked me about my religion. Muhammad Ali Jr., or Muhammad Ibn Ali, can you tell us what happened to you when you flew in from Montego Bay on February 7th?

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: Yeah. We was headed to baggage claim, and immigration pulled me aside and asked me a series of questions. The first question they asked me was: What’s my name? The second question was: Where did I get my name from? And the third question was: What religion are you? And so, I answered, “My name is Muhammad Ibn Ali.” And I said, “I got my name from my mother and father. They raised me. They gave me the name Muhammad Ali from birth.” And I said, “I’m Muslim.” Obviously, I think they didn’t believe me, so they took me into another room, the room in the back, and asked me the same series of questions. And so, it really struck me as a surprise, shock and awe, because I’m an American citizen, so I don’t see why he even stopped me in the first place. But they said they—

AMY GOODMAN: What did he keep asking you there?

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: Hmm?

AMY GOODMAN: What did he keep asking you in the second room?

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: Well, they asked me the same questions as he pulled me aside: What’s my name, where did I get my name from, and what was my religion?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, what—you were both separated, right? You come in together. What happened to you?

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: We all came in together. We was in wheelchairs, because I can’t stand on my legs, and he, either. So, it was like, I said, “We’re together. That’s my son over there. Keep him here with us, because we’re in a group.” And they just ignored it and rolled him out. And I says, “Where is he going? Where’s—you’re taking my son.” He says, “He’ll meet you on the other side.” I didn’t get—I didn’t understand what was that about. And he said—and then, so they told me to go around and go in another room. And I was going, “Why are they separating us?” That’s what sent me the red flag. Obviously, something was in place. Whether they had a ban going or not, something was already in place for this action. So, they asked me the same thing. “Your name?”

AMY GOODMAN: What did they ask you?

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: He says, “Well, we know you’re Muhammad Ali’s wife or ex-wife. OK, well, where do you live? And what is your religion?” And I says, “My religion? Are you kidding me?” I said, “That’s a personal question.” I said, “Is my papers in order?” They said, “What is your religion?” I said, “OK, I’ll comply.” And I said, “I’m a Muslim.” I totally was freaking out. I go, “What’s going on?” I didn’t understand. I says, “Is my papers in order?” “We just want to ask you a few questions. That’s all.” You know, I mean, they were very kind, but they never said why they asked me the question.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, apparently, since then, they have said that they weren’t stopping you because of your religion, Muhammad. Do you believe that?

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: No, because if he didn’t stop me because of my religion, why would you ask me what is my religion?

AMY GOODMAN: And they didn’t explain why they were.

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: That’s just contradictory.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Were you in that room with other people, as well, or were you just being questioned by yourself?

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: There was other people in the room that was being questioned, but I was the only one actually Muslim and black in the room, so…

AMY GOODMAN: Has this ever happened to you?

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: This is the first time.

AMY GOODMAN: Has this happened—

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: And I’ve been to England, Manchester, England, a year ago, and nobody approached me or asked me any question like that.

AMY GOODMAN: And Khalilah Camacho-Ali?

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: Well, I had just came back from Paris, France, two weeks earlier. But I was alone. And they didn’t bother me at all. But when I had my son with me, it totally changed.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Chris Mancini, your reaction when you were contacted and heard about this? And have you had any exchange with the immigration officials since then?

CHRIS MANCINI: We’re thinking about trying to waive her privacy rights and demanding, A, an explanation from the customs service and, B, an apology. But as I’m sitting here and listening to Khalilah, I’ve got to laugh, because Khalilah—the difference between what happened to Khalilah and Muhammad is partly a difference between their personalities, which should not be a factor whatsoever in the way customs treats you. But Khalilah is not the type of person to suffer fools gladly. When these guys basically—she recognized immediately that they were questioning her about stuff that she is constitutionally protected from having to answer. Muhammad gets dragged back there alone, and they’re separated. And it was quite obvious to both of them that this was deliberate. Some people have asked us, “Well, could this have been a rogue agent who just decided?” No, this was two separate agents—actually, two separate groups of agents.

This was—as far as I can tell, having been a United States prosecutor for almost 10 years, this is the type of thing that customs, Border Patrol does when they want to develop a profile. And we’ve been getting calls. We’ve been getting emails from all over the country. And the two things that people are saying—the first one is heartbreaking: Do you think I should deny my religion so that I can get into the country without being hassled? That’s heartbreaking. And the other calls we’re getting is: “You know, they—I’m a Muslim, and they asked me the same thing. And then they had a list of questions: Where do you pray? What imam do you practice with? What do you read? What religion? Do you pray five times a day? Are you a member of Jarid-something-or-other?” I can’t remember the exact name.

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: Some sect, yeah, sect.

CHRIS MANCINI: Some—a sect, you know? And the list goes on and on and on. So, I don’t care what customs says. I couldn’t—nobody believes for one second that these two people, especially the Alis, could be separated like this, questioned like this, and then it’s just an accident. This is not possible.

AMY GOODMAN: So we’re here with the Alis, Muhammad Ali’s father, your father, was born Cassius Clay. Muhammad Ali would later change his name after joining the Nation of Islam. Many news outlets initially refused to use his new name. The debate over his name even extended into the ring. During a famous 1966 interview with Howard Cosell, Muhammad Ali accused challenger Ernie Terrell of being an Uncle Tom for refusing to call him Muhammad Ali.

HOWARD COSELL: You continue to be unafraid of this man.

ERNIE TERRELL: Yeah. I’d like to say something right here. You know, Cassius Clay is—

MUHAMMAD ALI: Why do you want to say “Cassius Clay,” when Howard Cosell and everybody is calling me Muhammad Ali? Now, why you gotta be the one, of all people, who’s colored, to keep saying “Cassius Clay”?

ERNIE TERRELL: Howard Cosell is not the one who’s going to fight you. I am.

MUHAMMAD ALI: You’re making it really hard on yourself now.

ERNIE TERRELL: Well—

MUHAMMAD ALI: Why don’t you keep the thing in the sport angle? Why don’t you call me my name, man?

ERNIE TERRELL: Well, what’s your name? You told me your name was Cassius Clay a few years ago.

MUHAMMAD ALI: I’ve never told you my name was Cassius Clay. My name is Muhammad Ali. … You’re just acting just like an old Uncle Tom.

AMY GOODMAN: During that fight, Muhammad Ali repeatedly tormented Ernie Terrell by screaming, “What’s my name? What’s my name?” I’m wondering, Muhammad Ibn Ali, which means “Muhammad, son of Ali,” Muhammad, what do you think your father would say at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, if he were stopped, as you were?

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: “I’m a Muslim. That’s my religion. My name is no longer Cassius Clay. [inaudible] another thing against my religious belief.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And do you know at what point they understood that you were the son of an American icon, of someone who’s revered throughout the world?

AMY GOODMAN: Did you tell them?

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: Yeah.

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: Yes, I actually told them my father is Muhammad Ali, but it didn’t speed up the process. I think it made things a lot worse.

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: [inaudible] You know, I had pictures of me and Muhammad at the airport, because there were travelers asking for autographs. And I said, “See, this is me.” And it kind of cooled off, but still they detained me anyway. And it just—it’s just—

AMY GOODMAN: Are you planning to sue?

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: We plan to take some type of action. I don’t know if we’re going to sue yet or not. But it’s still in the air.

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: But it has to stop now. [inaudible]

CHRIS MANCINI: Can I, actually, want to comment on that?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Chris.

CHRIS MANCINI: First of all, don’t you miss Muhammad Ali? Don’t you?

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: I miss him.

CHRIS MANCINI: But the Alis have become the focus. We’re getting calls, as I said, from all forms of Muslim organizations, all forms of support groups. And I believe, although they didn’t ask for this fight, they took on the wrong people. And I think they’re going to become the focus and a rallying point for this struggle. Now, as far as a lawsuit, we’re working on—towards that. Obviously, we’re trying to get everybody who was similarly profiled to contact us or to contact an organization that we can work with. And if anything, Muhammad fought for respect.

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: That’s right.

CHRIS MANCINI: And so is his wife and his son.

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: We have to carry on the legacy. We have to help others, because other people who are immigrants that have a problem, they don’t have a voice. And we have to stand there and be a voice for them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well—

MUHAMMAD IBN ALI: And we have to think about the Muslims that are citizens in the United States. They’re going to make their Hajj and be like—we have to do every once in our lifetime. You know, it’s a practice that we do. And they’re going to make their Hajj. And should they be worried about getting back into the country to their families?

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it cannot be denied: The Alis are fighters. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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