Saudi Arabia fears critics like Minhaj, but they’ll get louder
Saudi Arabia, a spurious state without any historical roots, without any national identity, and without geographical factors, which was created in 1932 by Britain for its agent, Abdul-Aziz Aal-e Saud, the desert brigand of Najd, continues its precarious existence only because of American support for its highly repressive policies, and is jittery to any form of criticism that might bring about its downfall.
Now we have a report on the recent Saudi decision to ban an episode of American Muslim TV presenter Hassan Minhaj Netflix show, following months of Saudi attacks on the first Muslim US congresswomen – Ilhan Omar (Democrat from Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (Democrat from Michigan), the first Muslim women elected to the Congress.
The report compiled by Akbar Shahid Ahmed for Huffpost is titled: “Saudi Arabia fears critics like Minhaj, but they’ll get louder”.
After the worst year for Saudi Arabia’s image since the 9/11/2001 incident in New York involved several of its citizens, the regime in Riyadh began 2019 with a fresh controversy by asking Netflix to block Saudi users from viewing an episode of “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj.”
On January 1, The Financial Times confirmed that Netflix had complied ― setting off international condemnation and a wave of renewed attention to a sketch Minhaj released months ago.
But beyond the absurdity and outrage is a reminder of a powerful trend that matters not just for the Saudis’ ongoing struggle to sustain their place in the world but for 1.6 billion people associated with Islam, the religion that emerged over a millennium and a half years ago in Arabia.
The supposedly offending episode featured Minhaj saying this of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Heir Apparent Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), and his connection with last year’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi: “It blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to go, ‘Oh, I guess he’s not a reformer.’ Meanwhile, every Muslim person you know was like, ‘Yeah, he’s the heir apparent of Saudi Arabia.’”
As Muslims like Minhaj in the US and those elsewhere in the Muslim-majority world win bigger audiences, such observations will become a larger part of the global conversation. People will become more aware of critiques and nuances shared among Muslims for years but rarely included in the Western-driven coverage of issues like the Saudi regime’s behavior.
For Riyadh, that’s dreadful news. It becomes a lot harder to say the Saudi should get a free pass for denying adult women the right to travel without a man’s permission and giving its citizens almost no say over how the country is run if the regime can’t hide behind claims that that’s simply Islamic culture or the way Muslims want to live.
It’s inconvenient, particularly after the Saudis invested such immense amounts of time and money in trying to win influence by appealing to Muslims’ sense of solidarity, to have different kinds of voices and examples from within the community showing different ways to live and thrive. And it’s especially worrying that many of these newly visible Muslims seek to own their identities ― not to cede them, out of frustration or fear, to traditional stewards like Saudi clerics, or to simply assimilate for the so-called mainstream consumption.
Faced with this threat of the foreign security alliances critical to their power, Saudi leaders are so far only making things worse.
To understand why the situation escalated this way, consider that the state of Saudi Arabia is less than 100 years old. To become the kind of world player, the Saudis have invoked their connection to Islam. To deceive world Muslims the Saudi King uses in every official document the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” ― a reference to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Hijaz, the Land of Divine Revelation, which the Saudi Wahhabis had violently seized in 1925, albeit with much bloodshed, even in the precincts of the holy Ka’ba.
The regime’s most important friends, notably the US, justify the relationship by referencing its authority in the Muslim-majority world. Around the region, the idea of natural Saudi leadership of the “Ummah” ― the global Islamic community ― carries weight among thousands of politicians and generals, oligarchs and day laborers. It doesn’t hurt that the Saudis’ oil wealth helps them buy support, but money is something many ambitious nations, from America to neighbors like the United Arab Emirates or Turkey, can offer. A connection to the divine isn’t.
The alleged link in the international imagination between Saudi Arabia and Islam has been propagated to be so strong that even Islam’s critics take note ― and advantage. When Donald Trump lies about Saudi treatment of gay men in an attack on Hillary Clinton or when Islamophobe activist Pamela Geller publicizes Saudi excesses (inevitably inaccurately) to suggest that the way the Saudi operates is how Muslims want the world to run, they know they’re using one hardline regime to fear-monger about all of contemporary Islam and they know the tactic works.
But Saudi Arabia’s mantle is under threat. With more Muslims sharing particular experiences of their faith, their goals and their identities, the Saudi’s generalizations and claims to broad authority are becoming weaker. The internet’s made that easier in even the most hidebound Islamic societies. And in the West, years of activism have successfully pushed institutions to better represent younger Muslim communities, like immigrants or second and third-generation Americans.
That’s something Netflix considered in offering a major platform to Minhaj ― “a person who relishes and catalogs the cultural specificity of his life,” as a recent vivid profile of him put it ― in the first place.
A California-born child of Indian Muslims, Minhaj melded general American concerns about Saudi Arabia ― what it means for it be a close US partner, what it’s doing to civilians in Yemen and independent voices at home ― with a particular discomfort for his own community.
“As Muslims, we have to pray toward Mecca,” he said in the Netflix episode. “Imagine, we have to access God through Saudi Arabia, a country which I feel does not represent our values.”
It’s a sentence many Muslims wary of the Saudi state-sponsored misinterpretation of Islam ― and its propagation in other Muslim-majority societies, from Southeast Asia to North Africa ― would nod their heads to, even if official politics, clerical circles and Muslims’ desire to visit the holy sites in Arabia (something Minhaj has done) sustain a public posture of respect.
Sensing what’s coming and how it could challenge their regime’s critical coziness with Western patrons, top Saudis are already trying to maintain their comfortable status quo. That’s the driver behind efforts like Saudi media’s smearing in recent months of Representatives Ilhan Omar (Democrat from Minnesota of Somali origin) and Rashida Tlaib (Democrat from Michigan of Palestinian origin), the first Muslim women elected to the US Congress.
Journalist Ola Salem wrote: “These regimes have always benefited from the false choice they present to policymakers in the West — in Muslim countries, they say, extremists are the only alternative to dictators. That argument is eloquently undermined by American politicians who share those regimes’ religion, but not their cynicism about democracy.”
She noted: Such figures have independent knowledge and thoughts on the Muslim-majority world. They’re less likely to buy whatever the Saudi lobby in Washington is selling, such as panic about Iran.
While the episode ban remains in place, Minhaj’s quick viral response to Saudi Arabia shows that the Muslims who’ve fought stereotypes, racism and skepticism on top of all the other challenges to entering public life increasingly are unlikely to be cowed by Riyadh.
Abdul El Sayed, a young Democrat of Egyptian origin who most recently sought the party’s gubernatorial nomination in Michigan, said of Saudi Arabia: “I can’t speak for all American Muslims but what I can tell you is... it is a stain on the perception of Islam and Muslims.”
One of a growing group of Muslim Americans who are making waves in politics, he said a tougher US stance toward the Saudis would serve a range of progressive ideals: rejecting the regime’s human rights violations and regressive interpretation of Islam, and challenging a key player in the global oil market.
Saudi leaders now have to figure out how to handle and respond to these louder and louder voices.
The Saudis might seek advice from an increasingly close friend in a parallel situation, that is, Zionist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who despite Israel’s alleged status in Jewish theology and history has aligned himself with right-wing leaders in Europe and the US whose political bases include known anti-Semites. Netanyahu’s approach helps these right-wing movements fight claims of prejudice ― much as the Saudi reluctance to criticize Trump’s Muslim-focused travel ban did for the US administration.
Meanwhile, the fighting within the larger Jewish community over Israel’s direction only becomes more heated.
Whatever the Saudis choose, they can’t ignore the growing conversation.
El Sayed said: “I think it is incumbent on all Americans to stand up and say enough is enough, we are not going to be part of empowering a despot who murdered his own citizen.
He concluded: “I can think of nothing more American than that.”