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Islamophobia and the UFC: How Conor McGregor uses ethnic and religious tension to sell fights

Karim Zidan delves into Conor McGregor’s continued religious attacks on Khabib Nurmagomedov and how the former champion uses Islamophobia to promote fights. 

Chad Stanhope

On Wednesday, Conor McGregor targeted UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov with an Islamophobic twitter rant that led to outrage from combat sports fans and the broader media.

The former two-division UFC champion posted a tweet with Nurmagomedov and his wife wearing an Islamic face veil along with the caption, “Your wife’s a towel mate.” The comment was part of a series of tweets that took aim at the lightweight champion’s family and entourage. In another one, McGregor posted a picture of Nurmagomedov’s cousin, Abubakar, with a black eye and stated, “I smacked your brother around and took a s*** in this hat.” McGregor deleted the tweets shortly thereafter.

This is not the first time that McGregor has been accused of Islamophobia and racism. Ahead of his UFC 229 title fight against Nurmagomedov, McGregor played up the political and historical tension between Chechnya and Dagestan, and called Nurmagomedov’s father a “quivering coward” for associating with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. He posted pictures on social media with captions referencing him “chilling in Jahannam” (the Arabic word for hell). He even called Nurmagomedov a “backwards c-nt” during the UFC 229 pre-fight press conference after Nurmagomedov — who presents himself as a devout and outspoken Muslim — refused to accept a glass of McGregor’s branded whiskey.

Because of the racially-charged statements McGregor had incorporated into his fight promotion, the UFC was forced to increase security for the UFC 229 event to limit clashes between the two teams. This did not stop Nurmagomedov from scaling the octagon cage following a fourth-round submission victory against McGregor and launching himself at the Irishman’s team. A brawl ensued between the two sides, with fans surrounding the scene and police attempting to restore order. While Nurmagomedov’s actions were inexcusable, there is a case to be made that McGregor’s promotional antics — fuelled by religious attacks and other disturbing statements — set the stage for the inevitable brawl.

UFC 229: Khabib v McGregor Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Nurmagomedov is a native of the mountainous republic of Dagestan in Russia’s North Caucasus region. While he competes under the Russian flag, his papakha headdress and ‘Eagle’ nickname suggests he views himself a representative of Dagestan and the warrior spirit embedded in its history. In the North Caucasus, regional cultures are characterized by strict hierarchies based on age, hospitality, and family honor. Nurmagomedov is a byproduct of this culture. He is also a devout Muslim and is outspoken about his beliefs. McGregor used this as material to sell the fight at a time when Islamophobia and xenophobia were becoming increasingly mainstream.

McGregor’s latest controversy comes a week after the UFC star announced his retirement on social media. Despite being six months removed from UFC 229, McGregor continues to use Islamophobia as a promotional tool, this time to spark interest in a potential rematch with Nurmagomedov. This is due, in part, to the fact that McGregor has not faced any repercussions for stoking ethnic and religious tension to promote fights.

Ahead of UFC 229, UFC president Dana White dismissed McGregor’s antics as simple “trash-talking” and the brawl as an inevitable product of the “fight business,” which emphasized the promotion’s unwillingness to take responsibility for their role in the infamous incident, or to reprimand their biggest draw.

“There is trash-talking in every sport,” White said at the UFC 229 post-fight press conference. “They do it in the NBA and the NFL. They do it in baseball. It is part of the game. That is never going to change here. We’re never going to tell anybody what they can or can’t say. That’s never going to change.”

However, in the wake of McGregor’s latest Islamophobic comments, it appears that White has changed his tune. In a statement released to BloodyElbow.com on April 3, 2019, White revealed that he is “aware of the recent social media exchange between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor. The ongoing situation has escalated to a level that is unacceptable. As such, we are taking the necessary steps to reach out to both athlete camps and this situation is being addressed by all parties internally.”

McGregor’s religious attack on Nurmagomedov comes only weeks after the Christchurch mosque shootings, where 50 peoplewere murdered by a gunman who livestreamed the attack. The terrorist attack, which took place at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, directly targeted Muslims in their house of worship. While McGregor is by no means responsible or involved in any way in the attack, his twitter post — an insensitive attack on another fighter’s religion rooted in prejudice — normalizes such religious insults to millions of fans who follow him across his social media platforms.

Anti-Racists Rally Against Racism And Islamaphobia Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

“Using racism to “get a rematch” is vile. Especially after 50 Muslims were killed in New Zealand,” Professor Khaled A. Beydoun, a law professor and author of American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, told BloodyElbow. “Conor has consistency wielded racism as a tactic to not only sell fights, but rile up his fan base and anger his opponents.” Professor Beydoun continued: “He did so against Brazilian Jose Aldo, and infamously called Floyd Mayweather “boy” during their over-the-top promotion. He also made both explicit and latent anti-Latino remarks against Nate Diaz in their two bouts, calling him a “gangster” to play on the conflation of Mexican identity and gang affiliation.

“But, we see Conor McGregor’s bigotry most brazen and unhinged with regard to Khabib Nurmagomedov, the pious and proud Muslim fighter. He ridiculed his Muslim practice and expression throughout their volatile fight promotion, and today, stoops to the lowest of lows by claiming that he’s married to a towel - an ugly gesture playing on the “towelhead” slur attributed to Muslim women that don the Hijab.”

McGregor’s personal attack on Nurmagomedov and his family led to inevitable responses from both Nurmagomedov and his manager, Ali Abdelaziz. Nurmagomedov tweeted a photo of McGregor standing with a unnamed woman with the caption “Rapist, you are Rapist. You are a hypocrite who is not responsible for your actions. Justice will find you. We will see.” Nurmagomedov’s tweet was in reference to the fact that the former UFC champion is being investigated over sexual assault allegations in Ireland.

Combat sports such as boxing and MMA have a long history of exploiting national and racial tension for profit. The UFC has partaken in such promotional tactics in the past, including the UFC 114 main event between Rashad Evans and Rampage Jackson, the McGregor vs Nurmagomedov saga, and the ongoing rivalry between Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington. Given the UFC’s history of prioritizing profit over the regulation of their athletes’ conduct, they, too, share responsibility for the extreme measures their fighters go through in order to promote fights.

Given McGregor’s influence and sheer global popularity, the fighter has a responsibility to ensure that his platform is not used as an outlet for racist or xenophobic attacks. Instead, at a time when New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has worn the hijab in a show of solidarity with Christchurch and the country’s Muslim community, McGregor has made the hijab the source of one of his jokes.

McGregor has since tweeted that he wants to move forward with “my fans of all faiths and all backgrounds” and that “all faiths challenge us to be our best selves.” While the Irishman seems prepared to put the entire incident behind him, where does that leave the 1.5 billion Muslims he insulted?

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