Comedian Hasan Minhaj opened the season premiere of his Netflix show “Patriot Act” by directly addressing how the streaming service gave into demands from Saudi Arabia’s government last month to remove an episode critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“This is ‘Patriot Act’ — or as it’s known in Saudi Arabia, ‘Error 404, not found,’” Minhaj said at the start of the first episode of the show’s second season, which premiered Sunday.
“I still can’t believe it. We got Saudi Arabia to issue its very own Muslim ban,” he joked later, before recapping “how I became an Internet bad boy.”
Minhaj confirmed reports that the Saudi government requested that Netflix take down an episode from October, in which Minhaj criticized bin Salman for reported involvement in the slaying of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“A request? Does MBS think Netflix is a wedding DJ?” Minhaj joked Sunday. ”‘I have a quick request. Just take down that one episode that’s criticizing me, and just play Usher’s ‘Yeah.’”
While the episode is no longer available for Netflix customers in Saudi Arabia, it is still accessible on YouTube. As the comedian pointed out, the controversy has generated publicity for his show, backfiring for Saudi Arabia.
“For the first time in my life, I was a bipartisan icon,” Minhaj said. “Yes! Liberals and conservatives, they both embraced me like I was money from Big Pharma.”
In demanding Netflix pull the episode, the Saudi government cited the country’s “anti-cybercrime” law, which prohibits Internet content that violates “public order, religious values or public morals.”
“You’re telling me, even in Saudi prison, I’ll be associated with the IT department?” Minhaj joked.
“Of all the Netflix originals, the only show that Saudi Arabia thinks violates ‘Muslim values’ is the one hosted by a Muslim,” he continued, citing examples of other Netflix shows still available in Saudi Arabia that would likely violate the law.
″‘Sabrina,’ still up. It has literal devil worship and a lot of premarital witch sex. ‘BoJack Horseman’: There’s an alcoholic horse-man who snorts cocaine. And let’s not forget those evil cooking shows,” Minhaj said, showing multiple clips of people preparing and eating pork. “Not eating pork is the one rule every Muslim agrees on!”
Despite his swipes at Saudi Arabia, “this is no joke for many Saudi activists,” Minhaj noted. The same “anti-cybercrime” law used to ban his episode has been used to imprison and execute activists and dissidents, according to humanitarian organizations like Amnesty International.
The comedian also addressed the larger issue of censorship laws in authoritarian regimes, and suggested Netflix and other companies will have to contend with more censorship threats.
“This isn’t about just censoring one episode of a TV show. It’s about the precedent, because as tech companies keep expanding, they’re going to keep running into more vague censorship laws — laws that can allow governments to pull any content at any time,” he said. “Ultimately, Saudi doesn’t care about ‘immoral content’ that ‘impinges on religious values.’ They’re mad that a Muslim is airing out their dirty laundry.”
It was a fitting segue into the episode’s main segment: censorship and surveillance in China, with Minhaj assuring viewers that the episode would not be banned in China because “Netflix isn’t in China,” he said. “The only thing they binge watch is their own people.”