When boxing legend Muhammad Ali died last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was one of the first to say he would be attending the funeral, taking place Friday in Ali’s Kentucky home town of Louisville. But now that the day of the funeral has actually come around, Erdogan is not there.
Instead, the president’s office has said that Erdogan is cutting his visit to the United States short to fly back home. No explanation was offered for the move, leaving plenty of room for speculation.
Erdogan was initially on the roster of speakers on the funeral — a list that includes a number of famous names, such as former president Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal. However, on Monday, Ali family spokesman Bob Gunnell had said that two unnamed speakers had been added to the program, meaning that foreign guests Erdogan and King Abdullah II of Jordan would no longer be able to make an address. Gunnell told reporters that the two world leaders had been “gracious and understood.” But there were a number of suggestions that perhaps Erdogan had been removed from the list not just for scheduling reasons.
Erdogan did attend Thursday night’s funeral prayer service for Ali. According to Turkish media reports, Erdogan had hoped to lay a piece from the cloth covering the Kaaba in Mecca on Ali’s coffin during the service, or Jenazah, but the event’s organizers had turned down this request, along with another to have a top Turkish cleric read from the Koran during the ceremony.
There had also been a number of unconfirmed reports that Ali’s family had invited the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a noted rival to Erdogan, to the funeral: If true, this would no doubt add further to the Turkish president’s displeasure.
Making matters worse, Hurriyet Daily News reported Friday that there had been scuffle between Turkish presidential bodyguards and U.S. security personnel assigned to protect him — a scene reminiscent of a recent fracas involving Erdogan’s bodyguards in Washington.
Whatever the reality of the Erdogan’s sudden change of plans, it seems awkward. The Turkish president had been quick to offer his condolences to Ali in a series of tweets last Saturday. As in much of the Muslim world, Ali had been an icon in Turkey not only for his proud Islamic faith but also for his strong message of anti-colonialism and anti-racism.
It was probably personal for Erdogan too: When Ali visited Istanbul in 1976, he had met with the late Necmettin Erbakan, the early Turkish Islamist leader who had greatly influenced the current Turkish president.
Yet many in Turkey had found Erdogan’s rush to honor Ali distasteful, especially at a time of heightened conflict with Turkey’s Kurdish minority. On social media, some argued that Ali would have had no support for many of Erdogan’s increasingly controversial policies.
The Turkish president did pen an article for Bloomberg View in which he explained his decision to “fly halfway around the world” to attend the funeral of an American boxer. “The issues Ali raised decades ago remain relevant,” Erdogan wrote. “As such, the right way to honor the People’s Champion is to put his vision of liberty, equality and solidarity to work.”
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