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The revival of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

Outside the Lines examines the story of former NBA guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who protested the national anthem in 1996


When Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf arrived earlier this month in Michigan for a speaking engagement, only a week had passed since President Trump announced a travel ban against immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The action had sparked international protests, a clash between the judicial and executive branches and heightened fears within the world’s second-largest religious population.

Abdul-Rauf’s visit to Michigan felt exceedingly timely — at the confluence of an amplified level of sports activism and a turbocharged political environment. His invitation to the Islamic Center of Detroit had been engineered by Malak Silmi, a 17-year-old high school senior who was part of the mosque’s youth activism board. She had been inspired by Abdul-Rauf’s story — that of a dirt-poor childhood, of a single-minded quest, of NBA stardom, of a conversion to Islam, and of a controversial protest against the national anthem some two decades ago. The teenager thought Abdul-Rauf’s presence would be ideal during Black History Month.

“He strongly believed in a thing, and he strongly defended it,” says Silmi, who is Palestinian and says she hasn’t stood for the Pledge of Allegiance at Dearborn High since her freshman year. “… It just makes me think that we actually are a powerful population, a powerful minority in America.”

The Islamic Center of Detroit sits on the border of Dearborn, a suburb with an estimated Muslim population at close to 50 percent. Abdul-Rauf viewed the travel ban “as an affront to Muslims worldwide and an attack on the religion itself,” and so just before he began telling his story to the audience of more than 300 men, women and children, he needed first to be heard on the ban: “Especially in light of everything we’re experiencing now, it is more urgent to become relentless and [fearless] in speaking out.”

Abdul-Rauf’s visit was part of a revival of sorts, spurred by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem last year in protest of oppression against African-Americans and police brutality. Indeed, long before Trayvon Martin, before Black Lives Matter, before Ferguson, before Trump’s travel ban, there was Abdul-Rauf, in 1996, a Denver Nuggets guard who had become a practicing Muslim and subsequently refused to acknowledge the anthem on religious and political grounds.

And so, over the past six months, Abdul-Rauf has been in demand, at places such as a San Francisco high school, where the entire football team had taken a knee a la Kaepernick; at Yale University, where Abdul-Rauf spoke to two classes and then a group of about a 100 people who watched a documentary about his life; at a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers; and at the Dallas Chapter of the National Black United Front, where he gave a keynote speech titled, “Standing on Principles to Advance Human and Civil Rights.”

To spend time with Abdul-Rauf these days can be at once uplifting and depressing, motivational yet unsettling. Over a series of interviews with Outside the Lines, he showed himself to be thoughtful on the one hand, frequently poetic in expressing his views on life and social justice, as when he told a group of Yale students, “For me, I would rather live with a free conscience and die with a free soul.” But he also was confounding in ways that seemed to undermine his reason or message of hopefulness, whether indulging conspiracy theories (9/11 was an “inside job”), or insisting he’s owed an apology and possibly money because he had been blackballed by the NBA, or suggesting that our current civilization could be headed for a collapse akin to the Roman Empire.

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