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‘Dagestan, Wake Up’: Khabib Nurmagomedov and the role of cultural censorship in the North Caucasus

Karim Zidan delves into UFC champ Khabib Nurmagomedov’s decision to advocate for increased censorship in his native republic.

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Last week, a play titled Hunting for Men was shown at the Makhachkala Friendship House in the Republic of Dagestan. The performance featured a now-infamous scene with a woman seducing a man while dressed in lingerie. The scene was recorded by several of the attendees and spread through social media. Eventually, Khabib Nurmagomedov came across the video. The UFC champion criticized the scene as “filth” and demanded that those behind the play be held responsible. Nurmagomedov’s comments stoked outrage within his native republic, gained traction among local politicians, fellow athletes, and caused the play’s producer to receive alleged threats on social media.

The controversial play is a romantic comedy about a woman in search of new pleasures after her husband begins to lose interest in her. While none of the scenes featured nudity, one of the main characters does appear in lingerie during a portion of the play. This was enough for Nurmagomedov to label the display as “pornography” and demand an investigation into all those involved with the play.

“My advice to the leadership of Dagestan, organize an investigation, and the organizers receive punishment according to the law and apologize to the people, and in future for this never to be repeated, that events of this type are controlled at the level of the ministers and leaders of the Republic,” said Nurmagomedov, who later deleted the image of the woman in lingerie and replaced it with a black screen.

Nurmagomedov’s comments stoked outrage among locals, many of whom flooded the play’s creative team with angry comments and alleged threats. Ivan Zhidkov, the producer of the play, took Nurmagomedov’s advice and issued an apology on his Instagram account.

“On behalf of the creative group of the project, I apologize for any unintended offence to people in Dagestan,” Zhidkov wrote in social media post (h/t RT). “The performance was in no way intended to show ‘indecency.’ It’s a classic Italian play, which has been performed around the world for many years. The bed scene [referred to by Khabib] is part of the performance. We did not suspect that it could cause such resonance. [My direct messages] are littered with threats. I understand that this is the answer to our intended offence, but still…,”

“Different people have their traditions and foundations, and we respect that, but we did not take into account that everything was so strict. They invited us, and we came with pleasure. What happened, I think, makes one think about the censorship of many who want to organize a concert or performance in Dagestan.”

Nurmagomedov’s decision to call for increased censorship in his native republic also found support among local politicians in the Dagestani government, including the local Ministry of Culture and the Mufti of Dagestan. Nurmagomedov’s concerns also came to the attention of the Kremlin. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for President Vladimir Putin, stated that “Russia is a multinational country, and the specifics of its people cannot be ignored.”

The ongoing scandal surrounding the Hunting for Men play emphasizes the influence Nurmagomedov enjoys over public discourse in his native republic, as well as the impact he has on the socio-political outlook in Dagestan. The fact that he was able to exert such pressure through a single outraged post on his Instagram account highlights the power the UFC champion wields in the Russian Federation. This article will attempt to outline the concerns surrounding Nurmagomedov’s populism, as well as the role of cultural censorship in the North Caucasus.

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When Khabib Nurmagomedov claimed the lightweight title at UFC 223, he cemented his status as the first Russian fighter to hold a UFC title. He also became the first Muslim UFC champion. While his historic achievements made him into an international star, the Dagestani fighter has also been involved in several controversies that impacted his popularity within the Russian Federation. Each incident involved Nurmagomedov attempting to impose some form of cultural censorship on his native republic.

In August 2018, Nurmagomedov posted a video on Instagram of Azerbaijani rap duo Alexander Aliev and Navai Bakirov — known by their aliases HammAli & Navai — during a concert inn Makhachkala, Dagestan. The lightweight champion criticized the event and expressed his discontent with “modern Dagestan.” His teammate and fellow UFC fighter, Islam Makhachev also appeared in the comment section for the video, where he wrote “fuel for hell.”

However, Nurmagomedov’s post was met with backlash from fellow Dagestanis as well as from Russia’s burgeoning rap community, which forced the UFC champ to release a statement explaining his concerns.

“We all have to admit that Dagestan needs a reminder, and if athletes like me silently observe what is happening in our Republic, then what will we come to? Just look at the past few months and how many children we lost in Makhachkala. I’m not talking about other problems. Politics do not interest me and I’m not a [State Duma] deputy. This is not a political post. I, as a Dagestani, worry about my republic and what happens in it.”

The situation grew more tense the following month when rapper Egor Kreed was forced to cancel his performance in Dagestan after being threatened with rape. When Nurmagomedov was asked to share his thoughts on event cancelation, he stated that losing the event was “no great loss.”

The UFC champion’s refusal to denounce the threats that led to the cancelation of the rap concert fuelled his critics. Timati, Russia’s most recognizable rapper and the owner of the Black Star label that represents Egor Kreed, criticized Nurmagomedov for “inciting ethnic conflict on the basis of religion.” Nurmagomedov responded by insulting Kreed and Timati for their non-traditional sexual orientation. This brought about a heated debate about censorship on the basis of religious and traditional values.

Timati and Nurmagomedov eventually reconciled with the help of Ramzan Kadyrov. The Chechen dictator, who has longstanding relationships with both men, urged the parties involved “not to engage in nonsense.”

“We’ll establish order here, where we live – neither terrorists nor guest performers will come, nobody; it’s better to welcome guests; we should develop the Caucasus and tourism. Therefore, let’s live in peace,” stated Kadyrov.

In November 2018, shortly following his dominant victory against Conor McGregor at UFC 209, Nurmagomedov was once again embroiled in another censorship battle in his native republic. After a national guard officer was shot and killed at a nightclub in Dagestan, Nurmagomedov took to social media and called for the closure of all nightclubs in the republic.

”I fully support Eldar Iraziev,” Nurmagomedov stated after reposting an Instagram message by the founder of the ‘Pure Heart’ charity foundation Eldar Iraziev, who called on nightclub owners to terminate their ‘dirty business’. “A question to my fellow Dagestanis: what benefit do these night clubs bring to our society?”

The primary suspect in the nightclub shooting was Shakhban Machiev, the hand-to-hand combat champion who reportedly fled the scene shortly after the murder. He was later hospitalized with a gunshot wound to the thigh. It was later reported that Machiev was once been coached by Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, the father and longtime mentor of the UFC lightweight champion.

By the time Nurmagomedov expressed his outrage at the Hunting for Men play, he had already established himself as a conservative voice in Dagestan. In the aftermath of the most recent scandal, Alexei Navalny, — a Russian activist, Putin critic, and leader of the opposition party Progress Party — criticized Nurmagomedov’s actions as both hypocritical and a byproduct of religious fanaticism. Navalny — who himself has also been criticized for displaying nationalist ideals and policies — questioned why Nurmagomedov was more outraged about half-naked women than he was about dealing with issues of corruption in the North Caucasus.

Nevertheless, Nurmagomedov’s demands for censorship based on cultural differences and religious concerns reflect a larger narrative about the influence combat sports athletes wield within the socio-political landscape in the North Caucasus.

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Censorship, whether on an institutional or individual level, refers to the suppression of content that is deemed undesirable. This is done to prevent the work in question from reaching and influencing a wider audience. In Nurmagomedov’s case, the UFC champion is claiming a moral and religious imperative to limit the types of performances accessible in his native republic.

Nurmagomedov’s crusade against concerts and dramatical theatre also endangered the artists involved in the performances, as both a rapper and the play’s producer received direct threats. The former was forced to cancel a show in Dagestan; the latter was compelled to apologize. While this raises concerns about Nurmagomedov’s place as an international role model, it appears his actions were aimed specifically at his homeland.

Much of the UFC champion’s criticism was directed at the local government. After expressing his concerns surrounding the Hunting for Men play and demanding that someone be held responsible, Nurmagomedov issued a warning to the Dagestani government should they choose to ignore his demands.

“I want to address the government of Dagestan, if you think that everything will end in posts on social media, you are wrong. Take action in time,” he wrote, adding a hashtag that translated to “Dagestan wake up.”

Nurmagomedov’s growing conservatism and recent social media campaigns suggest that the longtime fighter may be considering a career in politics. Given the popularity of combat sports in the North Caucasus, and the longstanding precedent of Russian athletes pivoting to politics following illustrious careers, it would come as no surprise if Nurmagomedov was eventually elected to office. It should also be noted that Nurmagomedov was offered a position as an assistant to Vladimir Vasilyev, the Head of the Republic of Dagestan, shortly following his UFC 209 victory against McGregor. It remains unclear whether Nurmagomedov will accept the role.

Given the support Nurmagomedov has enjoyed from fellow athletes and local politicians over the past few months, it is unlikely that the UFC champion will refrain from any more public outbursts. While that may be the case, his polarizing actions will continue to serve as a case study in the dangers of cultural censorship, especially when weaponized by politicians and athletes alike.

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