I am one of literally billions of people affected by the life and actions of Muhammad Ali.
When my wife visited me at Evin prison on March 14, 2015, she smiled in a way I had not seen since before our arrest nearly eight months earlier.
“Muhammad Ali issued a statement calling for your release,” she said, beaming.
Initially I thought she was just trying to lift my spirits. I had told her recently that I did not want to hear any more bad news about my situation, which looked hopeless.
It was the day before my 39th birthday and I was at a low point, suffering from the weight of a long-forced isolation, but once she convinced me that it was indeed true, I cried the happiest tears of my captivity and felt strong for the first time in months.
It was a turning point for me. The public acknowledgment by Muhammad Ali, one of the most unifying figures in the world, that he believed I was innocent of any wrongdoing meant everything to me.
That blow had impact.
As he is everywhere, Ali is revered in Iran. The people love him as a champion of sports, but also charity, and authorities have a deep attachment to him as representing their stated ideology of upholding Islamic values and lifting up the oppressed. There’s one problem: He’s American.
A domestic Iranian news agency wrote “one of the most astounding moves by the U.S. government and Rezaian’s family was bringing the famed American boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who is very popular in Iran, into Jason’s freedom campaign. They used his popularity to influence Iranian public opinion.”
There is an odd truth to this logic, but not the one they intended. After Ali released the statement on my behalf, several of my prison guards told me they had heard about it, and some began to treat me differently — better, and with more respect. I like to think that his words made them doubt the forces who signed their paychecks.
Muhammad Ali, considered one of contemporary Islam’s most beloved figures, was always a hero who transcended faith, race and borders. He never belonged to anyone, but he is part of everyone. It is worth noting that in Iran he is, and will always be, known as “Muhammad Ali Clay,” a clear reminder of his pre-Muslim roots, a characteristic trait that in most cases the Islamic Republic refuses to acknowledge.
That Muhammad Ali, a black Muslim, is one of our greatest national icons speaks to what is right about this country, and what will continue to perplex Iran, and other Islamic states, about America’s enduring potential and its long reach.