Donald Trump and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) both hate being mocked by comedians. People like Trump and MBS want to be feared, not laughed at. The difference is MBS appears to be more effective than Trump at silencing comedians who take comedic aim at him. But what makes this so disturbing is that it’s an American company, Netflix, that helped MBS silence Muslim American comedian Hasan Minhaj.
There’s no dispute that Netflix pulled a recent episode of its comedic series Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj at the request of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A Netflix spokesperson told CNBC Wednesday morning: “We strongly support artistic freedom worldwide and only removed this episode in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal request—and to comply with local law.” (Netflix should have added “LOL” after its words that “we strongly support artistic freedom worldwide.”)
Reportedly, an official request was sent to Netflix from the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission, claiming that this episode of the comedy show “allegedly violated anti-cybercrime law.”
So why would MBS and Saudi go to these lengths, even alleging a comedy show violated cybercrime laws, to silence Minhaj? After all, both have been subjected to a deluge of media criticism over the kingdom’s involvement in the killing of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi.
Well, Minhaj’s attack was different for two reasons. First, it was comedy. And second, and likely more importantly, Minhaj is Muslim and made it clear on his show that, as a Muslim, he denounced what MBS and Saudi represent (the episode, at least for now, is still on YouTube).
Minhaj, a former correspondent for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, began the episode by going after MBS by name, noting that for months the Western media had hailed MBS “as the reformer the Arab world needed.” The comedian explained that it “blows my mind” that it took the killing of Khashoggi for people in the West to finally come to the conclusion, “Oh, I guess he’s really not a reformer.” Minhaj then quipped, “Meanwhile, every Muslim person you know was like ‘yeah, no shit… he’s the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.’”
The 33-year-old comedian went on to declare, “Now would be a good time to reassess our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” adding, “and I mean that as a Muslim and as an American.” And later Minhaj again touched on his faith in slamming MBS and Saudi, explaining that “as Muslims, we have to pray towards to Mecca, we make pilgrimage to Mecca, we access God through Saudi Arabia… a country that I feel does not represent our values.” He also made a great point that as a fellow Muslim I couldn’t agree with more: “Saudi Arabia is only 2 percent of entire Muslim population, but when Saudi does something wrong, Muslims around the world have to live with the consequences.”
Minhaj also joked about Saudi’s strategic relationship with the United States since the days of FDR, despite the kingdom’s ties to terrorism against our nation: “America hates terrorists. Saudi Arabia gave them [the 9/11 hijackers] passports.” Minhaj then quipped, “Saudi Arabia is basically the boy-band manager of 9/11. They didn’t write the songs… but they helped get the group together.”
MBS and Saudi Arabia being criticized by the Western media is one thing. But having jokes told about them by a fellow Muslim was clearly too much. And keep in mind, while there’s a growing stand-up comedy scene in the Middle East, there’s no political comedy there like we have in the United States, where our elected officials are roasted daily. In fact, I have performed stand-up comedy across the Middle East in the past, including four shows in Saudi Arabia. Every show in the region has the same rules: No mocking the leader of the country you are in. Although things were somewhat different when I was in Lebanon, where the promoter told me: “Say whatever you want, but if you make fun of Hezbollah, you are on your own.”
Just ask Bassem Youssef, the comedian known as the “Jon Stewart of Egypt.” Youssef, who because of his comedy mocking Trump’s BFF Egyptian leader Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, now lives in exile in California because his life was at risk over his comedic barbs.
And for those who think wanting to suppress comedy is a Muslim thing, you don’t get it. This isn’t about a religion; this is about power. It’s about silencing people who not just criticize these strongman leaders but cause people to laugh at them. That scares those who want to be feared.
Just look at Donald Trump’s reaction to being mocked by comedians. In the closing days of the 2016 presidential campaign, he publicly called for Saturday Night Live to be canceled for unfairly mocking him, tweeting the show did a “hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show.”
As president, Trump has continued to lash out at comedians who ridicule him, including late-night comedy hosts. And after last year’s White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) dinner, where he and his administration were “unfairly” mocked by comedian Michelle Wolf, he called for the dinner to drop its 30-plus year tradition of having a comedian perform. Sadly, Trump won that battle, with the WHCA recently announcing there would be no comedian at its 2019 dinner.
If Trump had the power, he would clearly silence comedians who mock him like MBS has done. But Netflix has the ultimate power to right this wrong and make it clear that it will not be pressured into silencing those who use comedy to speak truth to power. Anything less by Netflix makes the company complicit in MBS’ plan to stifle those who criticize him.