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In tense political climate, Belal Muhammad hoping to use UFC platform to educate fans on Islam

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Belal Muhammad made his UFC debut in July against Alan Jouban. He lost the bout, but won a $50,000 Fight of the Night bonus. The scrap was one of the best of the UFC's International Fight Week festivities, featuring three cards on three straight nights in Las Vegas.

Muhammad's brother was in the stands watching the exciting battle and heard a misplaced chant break out. He told Muhammad about it afterward.

"A lot of people were screaming, ‘USA! USA! USA!'" Muhammad told MMA Fighting. "I'm like, ‘Dude, I'm American. I'm a citizen. What are you talking about?' I was born in Chicago."

It didn't really bother Muhammad. Or surprise him. He was just disappointed and it underscored what he has learned over the last few months and years. Muhammad has realized he's not just doing this for himself or his family. He's in a position where he has become a role model for Muslim Americans and he's getting more and more comfortable with that.

Muhammad will meet Vicente Luque at UFC 205 on Nov. 12 in New York. It's a prime-time spot on the FS1 prelims of the UFC's first-ever card in New York City. He is absolutely thrilled by the opportunity and the platform. Muhammad said he has already gotten messages online from Muslims who live in New York, who plan on being at Madison Square Garden to support him.

"When I first started my career, I didn't really think about it," Muhammad said of being a role model. "But now when I got to the UFC and before when I became Titan champion, you start getting messages from people telling you, ‘We love what you're doing, we love the message you're conveying.' I didn't think that people would look at me like that. Now that I do see people looking up to me and kids thinking of me like that, it does feel good. It makes me want to do better for them."

Muhammad, 28, whose parents are from Palestine, didn't have an inkling of that before. He grew up in Chicago, wrestled in high school, and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Muhammad was just your average American from the Midwest.

He understands now that he isn't always going to be viewed that way by others. Muhammad says he has gotten racist tweets and social media posts from people, but has much more supporters than he does haters.

"You've gotta brush it off," Muhammad said. "A lot of people don't understand what being a Muslim is and they don't understand what it means. You just see what you see on the news. But meeting someone like me in person, a Muslim, they're like, ‘Oh, I thought all you people were mean' or something like that. It's funny. I try to change their mindset. A lot of people have never even met a Muslim. They just know what they see on TV, like ‘these guys are all crazy, they're all terrorists, blah blah blah, their religion tells them to kill people.' Then they meet me in person and they're like, ‘Wow, you're a really nice guy.'"

The last few months have been especially difficult for American Muslims like Muhammad. Republic presidential nominee and now president-elect Donald Trump initially proposed the banning of all Muslims from coming into the United States. That policy has evolved into what Trump describes as "extreme vetting" of those who practice Islam.

Muhammad is afraid the rhetoric — and implication that all Muslims have terrorist ties or hate America — has incited people in the country, many of whom don't have real knowledge of Islam, to dislike or even hate the religion and its people.

"Trump will sit there and say crazy stuff and that'll get normal people who would probably hide it in, they'll start coming out and saying crazy stuff, too," Muhammad said. "They'll think, ‘This guy is running for the presidency and he's talking crazy. So maybe he is right.' You start noticing your Facebook friends saying, ‘[Trump] is right, eff these Muslims,' and I'm like ‘What?'

"That's the type of thing Donald Trump is bringing, so I could imagine what would happen if he becomes president and he does half of what he's saying."

Muhammad wasn't a huge fan of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, either. But he was surprised Trump won and will be in the White House in January. There were anti-Trump protests in New York this week after the election.

"It was crazy," Muhammad said. "I didn't expect that, man. Now I'm just hoping he doesn't go through with half of what he was saying. But I doubt he will anyway. He's just one of them guys that talks. I don't think he's gonna do anything anyway.

"They're not gonna just let him do whatever he wants. We'll see how it goes.:

Muhammad is not really political, in general. He's focused on fighting and he has a big one coming up on a huge stage at UFC 205.

"I'm looking to make a statement there and make some noise there, especially with all the big names on the card," Muhammad said. "If I go in there and steal the show, it would be huge."

More and more, Muhammad is understanding that those potential performances are meaning a lot to people. He might just be a pro athlete who fights for a living inside an Octagon, but Muhammad realizes that he has a unique position, one that many Muslims and Palestinian Americans don't have.

"I just want to go get to a higher level and let people know and convey a message of peace, that we are not like that," Muhammad said. "Our religion is about peace and not everybody is crazy and nuts."