In Netflix’s Censorship of Hasan Minhaj, Money Mattered More Than Murder
What was Netflix really thinking when it caved to Saudi pressure and yanked an episode of the comedian Hasan Minhaj’s new show, “Patriot Act,” which featured a monologue criticizing a Saudi Arabian royal? Minhaj’s monologue was hardly groundbreaking—or all that consequential—given the global fury over the assassination of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad. The Senate passed a unanimous resolution last month holding the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, responsible for the premeditated murder of the journalist. The C.I.A. also concluded with “high confidence” that the prince, who is the de-facto ruler of the desert kingdom, ordered the killing. The Turkish government leaked an intelligence tape that captured Khashoggi’s desperate final struggle, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, his execution, and the grisly sounds of a bone saw dismembering his body. Across the globe, politicians and editorial pages have condemned the Saudi leadership for its heinous behavior.
In his monologue about the Khashoggi affair, from the second episode of the series, Minhaj quipped, “Just a few months ago, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, a.k.a. M.B.S., was hailed as the reformer that the Arab world needed. It blows my mind that it took the killing of Washington Post journalist for everyone to go, ‘Oh, I guess he’s really not a reformer. Meanwhile, every Muslim person you know is, like, ‘Yeah, no shit, he’s the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.’ ” He added, “The only thing that he’s modernizing is the Saudi dictatorship.”
As part of its wider damage-control campaign to repair its image and rehabilitate the crown prince’s reputation, the kingdom informed Netflix that the episode violated a vague but sweeping Saudi cybercrime law. The law decrees that the “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy” is a crime punishable by as much as five years in prison and hefty fines. The law has been used to silence dissidents, bloggers, and activists who post videos, pictures, and campaigns online, according to Amnesty International. Netflix was apparently so rattled by the warning from the authoritarian regime that, last week, it voluntarily pulled the episode containing Minhaj’s sketch from local distribution.
The streaming company scrambled to defend its decision. “We strongly support artistic freedom and removed this episode only in Saudi Arabia after we had received a valid legal demand from the government—and to comply with local law,” the entertainment company said, in a statement. The episode is still available everywhere else on Netflix and, ironically, even to Saudis via YouTube.
A bit like the Saudi regime itself, the Netflix decision smacks of giving priority to money over the immorality of murder. It also sets a precedent with implications far beyond the fate of a half-hour show that aired on October 28th—and that might have been long forgotten had it not been for this flap with the Saudis, two months later. The case reflects the growing tensions between global Internet platforms that erase borders and autocratic governments with the money or legal muscle to restrict freedom within the borders they rule.
In the Minhaj case, Netflix ceded editorial control of content to an autocratic regime. “Netflix is in danger of facilitating the Kingdom’s zero-tolerance policy on freedom of expression and assisting the authorities in denying people’s right to freely access information,” Samah Hadid, the Middle East director at Amnesty International, said, in a statement. Saudi Arabia’s small population isn’t even all that important to the streaming giant, which has a hundred and thirty-seven million subscribers worldwide.
Netflix’s choice to cave to censorship sets a dangerous and enduring precedent that can be exploited elsewhere, PEN America warned, on Wednesday. “Powerful global corporations are in a unique and important position to push back against requests to censor speech, and failing to do so legitimizes repression,” Summer Lopez, PEN America’s senior director of free-expression programs, said, in a statement. Globally, the kingdom ranks a hundred and sixty-ninth—only eleven nations rank lower—for freedom of speech and the press, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Netflix’s act also weakens what is arguably America’s most powerful weapon in spreading its values around the world—its culture. In the autocracies and war zones that I’ve covered for almost half a century, “soft power,” in the form of American movies, television shows, music, literature, even comic books, has often been pivotal in nurturing change.
In South Africa in the nineteen-seventies, during apartheid, I went to an underground movie club that showed “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”—a film about an interracial couple struggling to convince their racist parents to let them wed. It was all the talk among protesters during the country’s first black mass uprising. In war-torn Beirut, in the nineteen-eighties, guns inevitably stopped firing when “Dallas,” a prime-time American soap opera, aired. It was widely referred to by the Lebanese, including the militias, as the “Dallas Ceasefire.” In Iran in the nineteen-nineties, the regime couldn’t keep up with the proliferation of illegal satellite dishes that brought in CNN, the BBC, and “The Bold and the Beautiful,” “Oprah,” and MTV. During the Arab Spring uprising in Cairo, I knew a young Egyptian activist who translated “The Montgomery Story,” a comic book that told the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s civil-disobedience campaign. She distributed the Arabic version to other protesters camped out at Tahrir Square.
“What is American soft power worth if the culture we export abroad can offer a vision of a good life and a vibrant society, but must remain silent about the kind of change that’s required to achieve that ideal?” the Washington Post’s columnist Alyssa Rosenberg wrote on Wednesday.
One of the tragic twists in the Netflix decision is that Minhaj is a Muslim, one of a new generation of Muslim-American comedians bridging America’s societal chasm. He was born in California, to parents who had emigrated from India. His humor (which is rarely about foreign policy) is sufficiently admired by American audiences to get him a gig entertaining the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, in 2017. Last year, he won a Peabody Award for his début comedy special, “Homecoming King,” which he performed Off-Broadway before it aired on Netflix. He was also a correspondent on “The Daily Show.” Minhaj has offered a charismatic face for the word “Muslim” to counter xenophobia in America. On paper, Saudi officials—the guardians of Islam’s two holy places—should admire the comic.
On “Patriot Act,” Minhaj once went after the U.S. government for a military manual that described Saudis as descendants of indigenous tribes with a “later mixture of Negro blood from slaves imported from Africa.” “Oh, America,” he said, “even in boring technical manuals, you somehow manage to be racist.” After the show aired, the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, issued a formal apology for providing “inappropriate material” without a “more fulsome review.” The manual was returned “for revision.”
Comedy has long offered a path to close the gap between cultures, religions, and races in the United States. Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Fanny Brice were among the early Jewish comedians who crossed a religious divide in Wasp-ish America; Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, and Redd Foxx were among the first African-American comedians to win over white audiences; Desi Arnaz, Freddie Prinze, and, later, George Lopez won visibility for Latinos on television; and Margaret Cho did the same for Asian-Americans. Since the 9/11 attacks, Muslim comedians have both ridiculed jihadi extremism and confronted Islamophobia in America. A decade ago, a quartet of Muslim Americans launched the “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour,” playing off a phrase used by President George W. Bush in a State of the Union address. In 2012, seven Muslim comedians took a show called “The Muslims Are Coming!”—which included a “Hug a Muslim” stand and a “Bowl with a Muslim” skit—to American cities where polls showed the deepest fear of Islam.
The comedian Maz Jobrani, who was part of the “Axis of Evil” tour and filmed his own one-man Netflix special at the Kennedy Center, in 2017, told me that he believes the streaming service now faces “a quagmire of sorts. The only other thing would have been to say, ‘No,’ and see what happened.” He added, “The loss of that small a market would not have rocked Netflix’s standing, and it would have been siding with freedom of speech.” Netflix has been friendly to comedians, including Muslim Americans. But, in this case, Minhaj was right, and Netflix was wrong. “You live or die by the audience,” Jobrani said. “The market should determine what happens, not government censorship. A company in America should not be folding to that.”
Netflix has already faced serious backlash from human-rights groups and the media. Karen Attiah, who edited Khashoggi’s columns at the Post, tweeted, “@hasanminhaj of @patriotact has been a strong, honest and (funny) voice challenging Saudi Arabia + Mohammed bin Salman in the wake of #khashoggi’s murder.” She called the Netflix decision “quite outrageous.”
“When Jamal Khashoggi wrote about the need for free expression in the Arab world (and everywhere), that freedom is not just about journalists,” she tweeted. “It’s about freedom for artists, comedians, cartoonists, musicians, activists and anyone who wants to express their views on society.”
Minhaj may have the last laugh. After Netflix pulled the controversial episode from Saudi distribution, he tweeted, “Clearly the best way to stop people from watching something is to ban it, make it trend online, and then leave it up on YouTube.” More importantly, the truth is on Minhaj’s side.