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Louisville's International Airport Renamed After Muhammad Ali

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to Louisville, Ky., where the city's regional airport has a new name - the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport. Today the city unveiled the branding for the airport renamed for the boxing legend. As Amina Elahi of member station WFPL reports, the change is being hailed by many in the community, especially many Muslims who find great meaning in the decision.

AMINA ELAHI, BYLINE: Muhammad Ali's daughter Maryum thinks it's a big deal that Louisville has named its airport after her dad.

MARYUM ALI: My father would be the type where, if he was living, going in and out of that airport - this airport was named after me. That's something. That's something, man. This is big. This is beautiful - a Muslim, a Muslim. I could just hear him now.

ELAHI: Maryum was in town for the annual Ali Week, when Louisville celebrates the champ. She says the name change could be a source of hope, especially considering the challenges some Muslims have faced in airports since the 9/11 terrorist attacks - she was one of them. For a while afterwards, she couldn't check her baggage curbside. Her name was on a watch list. So she thinks it's ironic to now have an airport named for her father. Maryum says there are those who would separate Muhammad Ali from Islam, but she remembers her father speaking often of his faith and being motivated by it.

On a recent afternoon, worshippers lined up shoulder-to-shoulder for prayers at the Guiding Light Islamic Center in Louisville. After prayers, Louisville resident Mohamed Samaha says he sees no downside to the airport renaming. It's something he thinks Muslims should be proud of.

MOHAMED SAMAHA: But I stress on the fact that we don't want to claim Muhammad Ali just for ourselves as Muslims. Muhammad Ali is a world icon.

ELAHI: His wife, Kim Mohamed, is also excited. She wears a headscarf - or hijab - and says she's been randomly selected to be patted down at the Louisville airport.

KIM MOHAMED: She actually apologized and said, I'm sorry I have to do this. It's so that the other passengers feel safe. I said, that's OK. We all want to feel safe.

ELAHI: She's a Kentucky native and says the rebranding will be great for Muslims and will attract travelers to Louisville.

MOHAMED: If a person travelling has it in their head that this airport is named Muhammad Ali, then it might ease their anxiety to think that they are headed to a friendly place.

ELAHI: That welcoming image is something Louisville officials hope to capitalize on with the new airport name. Even today, some think of Ali as an athlete and philanthropist before thinking of him as a Muslim. Mayor Greg Fischer says Ali tourism is becoming a major brand along with the Kentucky Derby and bourbon. He says there are people who want to learn about Ali the boxer and Ali the humanitarian.

GREG FISCHER: We want them to know we're the home of the champ. And the champ stood for being the greatest at whatever he did, whether it was inside the boxing ring or helping people with their humanitarian causes.

ELAHI: Ali's daughter Maryum says her father would have been honored by the recognition. He was always confident, but in his old age, he would've been surprised by it too. Now Maryum hopes those who use Ali's brand do so in a way that acknowledges the religion he loved.

ALI: If you're going to speak about him and how great he is, it's good to also mention we should not hate a whole religious group. Look at our native son, Muhammad Ali. He was a Muslim.

ELAHI: One of the greatest fights of Ali's life was for better understanding of Islam. That fight continues today. And his daughter Maryum says it's up to Muslims to remind people that what they admire about Ali also includes Islam. For NPR News, I'm Amina Elahi in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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