As a sportsman, Khabib Nurmagomedov has been an inspiring figure for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Proudly wearing his Islamic faith, Khabib is confident in his deen and unapologetic about Islam.
This is just what is needed today to counter the cultural and media onslaught on Islam and Muslims.
Native of Dagestan—a federal republic within the Russian Federation—Khabib’s persona has accumulated the two “negatives” of the Western media and their ruling establishments: Islam and Russia.
Both are vilified by the mainstream media.
While Khabib is not the first proud symbol for Islam and Muslims in the field of sports, he is unique due to the age he is living in.
When Muhammad Ali was in his prime and championed Islam through his personality and achievements, the Muslim world was under a much tighter neo-colonial dominance than today.
There was no assertive Turkey, a fast-developing Malaysia or a regional power like Islamic Iran.
In Khabib’s native Dagestan, as in the entire Soviet Union, Islam and religion generally were banned.
There was no Facebook or YouTube.
The advantages of Khabib’s time also add a lot more pressure on him and what he represents through his moral conduct and unapologetic adherence to Islam.
While Khabib retired from the mixed martial arts (MMA) the socio-political complexities of the time along with the challenges presented by the rumor mill of social media and mass disinformation, will not allow him to retire from his role as a global icon.
There is much chatter in the Russian blogsphere about whether Khabib is a soft power symbol for Islam or Russia?
A simplistic response would be to qualify Khabib as only a Russian or a Muslim soft-power symbol.
The reality is that he is both, a Russian citizen who is Muslim.
Throughout his career, chauvinistic Russian journalists tried to put him on the spot by asking him why he did not wear a Russian flag.
Khabib gave an intelligent smack down by pointing out that unlike Russian soccer fans who wear the Russian flag and engage in vandalism and alcoholism, he is a far better representation of Russia.
It is understandable why some Russians might be eager to convert Khabib into Russia’s soft-power symbol.
The conflict in Ukraine and other places has exposed Russia’s soft-power strategy as quite ineffective.
In Ukraine, Russia often had to resort to the legacy of the Soviet Union, outdated Marxist narrative of history and old school Soviet slogans in order to formulate a psychological and moral boost to its policies.
The Western media correctly noticed that the reason the Russian political elite are obsessed with WW-II is because it is their best available narrative at the moment.
Moscow can rightly use the symbol of Khabib Nurmagomedov—a Russian citizen—to build a positive perception of Russia.
The biggest mistake the governing establishment could make would be to utilize his influence in a manner which would force him to choose between his Muslim identity and loyalty to his country.
It would be similarly incorrect for Muslims and Muslim countries to ride Khabib’s popularity in a manner which would create tensions between his influence and the Russian state.
Khabib can be both, a positive influence for Islam and for Russia.
We wish our brother in faith all the best and May Allah (swt) protect him from the schemes of his adversaries and ignorant well-wishers.