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The episode of 'Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj' probed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's alleged complicity in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi's role in the war in Yemen.

Comedian Hasan Minhaj attends the 11th Annual Stand Up for Heroes benefit, presented by the New York Comedy Festival and The Bob Woodruff Foundation, at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, New York. (AP Archive) 

Netflix has dropped an episode of Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj that sharply criticised Saudi Arabia following a complaint that the kingdom made to the webstreaming service, the Financial Times reported on Tuesday. The second episode of the web show shone the spotlight on Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's (MBS) alleged part in the October 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul's Saudi Consulate, which tipped the kingdom into one of its worst crises. The episode also highlighted Saudi Arabia's role in the war in Yemen - a conflict that has so far killed around 10,000 people since 2015 and pushed 14 million Yemenis to the brink of famine.

In the episode, Minhaj called for a reassessment of the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia, branding the Yemen War “the biggest tragedy of the MBS era”. He also criticised Silicon Valley for "swimming in Saudi cash". 

“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 said, in a statement to Financial Times

Netflix is referring to Article 6 of Saudi Arabia's anti-cybercrime law that states that “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers” is a crime. This can be punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine reaching SR3m ($800,000).  Although the episode has been pulled from Netflix in Saudi Arabia, it can still be viewed on the show's YouTube channel. 

Why does every ruler in the Muslim world feel the urge to present himself/herself ‘strong’? The answer lies in the fact that most lack legitimacy and therefore must project the image of power to appear strong.

The strongman syndrome seems to plague the Muslim world much more than any other region. Every tin pot dictator and clown — that is what every ruler in the Muslim world is (note, we did not use the word leader!) — wants to show that he (and in rare cases, she) is strong, capable, and indispensable. Without him/her at the helm, the sky would fall. As the evil genius Henry Kissinger once quipped, “the graveyard is full of indispensable people.”

Let us take a closer look at the problem. There are 57 Muslim nation-states in the world today. Kings, amirs, presidents, prime ministers and military strongmen rule these nation-states. With the sole exception of Islamic Iran, not one Muslim nation-state has a legitimate ruler or system. Here is why.

The nation-state structure is completely alien to the political culture and universalist values of Islam. The colonial powers imposed this and its related concept, nationalism, on the Muslim world. Barely a century ago, Muslims used to travel freely without passports or visas. They needed no permission from anyone to traverse vast territories. The physical boundaries that divide the Muslim world were drawn arbitrarily by the colonial powers to serve their interests.

Allah (swt) refers to the Muslims as one Ummah in the Qur’an. Islam recognizes the reality of people of different backgrounds, languages, color etc, but the noble Book says these are meant to sensitize us to Allah’s (swt) diverse creations and to recognize each other (49:13). In Islam, taqwa (consciousness of Allah’s power presence), not social, political or economic status, is what determines an individual’s position before Allah (swt).

All rulers in the Muslim world, barring Islamic Iran’s, are subservient to imperialist and Zionist powers. This is a negation of Islam since there is only one power and authority —Allah (swt). He has no partners or equals. Those Muslims who bow before other powers or authority are guilty of shirk, the gravest sin in Islam.

How did Muslims end up in this sorry state? Throughout his life, the noble Messenger (pbuh) struggled against the ‘asabiyah (clan solidarity) prevalent in Arabia. His message was clear and uncompromising: there is only One God — Allah (swt) — and all men and women are equal. No one has the right to oppress others. True, there will always be some who are stronger or richer than others but these differences cannot be used to exploit others. Islam recognizes power differentiation but it regulates the use of it and forbids abuse.

After the noble Messenger (pbuh) left this earthly abode, his successors, called khulafah (or imams), continued to implement the system and values that he had established. Muslims would do well to recognize that even though many people had entered the fold of Islam at the time of the Prophet (pbuh), not everyone was sincere. That is why the Qur’an draws our attention to the munafiqs who existed even at the time of the Prophet (pbuh). Pretending to be Muslims, they planned for an opportune moment to strike and grab power.

This is precisely what happened when the khilafah was subverted into mulukiyah(hereditary kingship). While the overwhelming majority of Muslims opposed this dangerous development and some even openly challenged it, paying with their lives, a body of opinion emerged to swallow this bitter pill hoping for better times. This was a serious mistake. ‘Asabiyah took over and the concept of strongmen emerged — shawkah (glory) and quwwah (power) became acceptable in Islamic terminology. The sword wielders held sway and opponents were ruthlessly suppressed.

If the Muslim world is plagued by “strongmen” today, this has historical precedence. The major difference between then and now is that past rulers, despite being illegitimate, were not subservient to the power of kufr. Today’s rulers are anything but independent or free. Every king and amir has been planted by the colonialists — British and French — and is maintained in power today through imperialist and Zionist support. Given that the systems in place in the Muslim world are also imposed by colonial powers, no ruler can claim legitimacy. From the Islamic point of view, legitimacy comes from Allah (swt) by following His commands and precepts. This is not conditional on acceptance by the majority. Many Prophets (a) delivered their message but few people followed them and thus their programs could not be implemented in society. It is at the implementation stage that people’s acceptance comes into play.

So why do Muslim rulers need to appear “strong”? Subservience to taghut has to be camouflaged. By making an appearance of being strong, even if it means killing a large number of their people, is a time-tested formula. Is it surprising that Muslim rulers have murdered more of their own people than those of the enemy? Iraq, “Saudi” Arabia, Egypt and a host of others offer ready examples.

1979 not only transformed the region but led to global repercussions still being felt 40 years later. In February 1979 the Shah of Iran’s regime fell as Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in Iran. The 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution serves a reminder of how much the region was transformed around this upheaval.

The revolution set off a chain of events that shifted the primary zone of armed confrontation in the Middle East from Arab-Israeli conflict to the Gulf. It also coincided with a series of events within the same year that had little to do with revolution, such as the invasion of Afghanistan, but nonetheless impacted the region to the present.  Indeed 1979 is the year that made the current Middle East in terms of the three Iraq wars that would begin with the 1980 invasion of Iran and the conditions that gave birth to Al Qaeda.

Key events of 1979

Laid out in chronological order after February, the major milestones are:  

26 March - signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty
30 March - elections in Iran for an Islamic Republic
4 April - General Zia ul Haq takes power in Pakistan
16 July - Saddam Hussein becomes president of Iraq
4 November - Seizure of the US embassy in Tehran
20 November - Seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca
25 December - the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

Not all of the events are not directly related, nor have a causal relationship, but set in motion trajectories that would result in three Iraq wars and the emergence of Al Qaeda and its eventual splinter group, Daesh (ISIS).

Iraq as a theatre of conflict 
At the time, Egypt was the regional hegemon and paramount front-line state against Israel until it signed a peace treaty in 1979. Even though the two countries do not share a border, Saddam Hussein sought to replace Egypt as the new pan-Arab hegemon to balance Israel, in addition to Iran, whose revolutionary government threatened the Arab world’s status quo.  Saddam Hussein, then vice president, pressured his elder cousin General Hasan al Bakr to resign and became president in July. Saddam viewed Khomeini’s leadership of an Islamic Republic as a threat, as the Ayatollah urged the Shia of Iraq to overthrow his government and the monopoly on power held by the Arab Sunni-minority and secular Iraqi Baath Party.

By November Iranian students seized the US embassy inaugurating the enmity between the Islamic Republic and the US that endures to this day. With this rupture of the American-Iranian alliance that began with the Shah, Iran was internationally isolated, presenting an opportunity for the Iraqi president.

Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980, assuming its military was eviscerated after the revolution. His assault sought to trigger a collapse of the Islamic Republic, allowing himself to project Iraq as the new pan-Arab hegemon. Saddam assumed the war would be a few months, but instead he ushered in an eight-year war, one of the longest conventional wars of the twentieth century. 

The debt Saddam incurred from Kuwait to finance this war led to the invasion of Kuwait itself in 1990 to erase that debt. America’s failure to remove Saddam in the 1991 Gulf War left unresolved issues which led to the 2003 Iraq War, which created the instability in the country that would lead to the emergence of Daesh. The declaration of the Islamic State in 2014 represents the culminating point in the second series of interlinked events that also began in 1979.  

The rise of Al Qaeda 
The creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in March by Shia revolutionaries inspired Sunni Arabs throughout the Arab world, ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to more extreme and violent groups that would eventually form Al Qaeda. The revolution provided a model of overthrowing a strong government, despite being supported by the US.  In November, armed followers of Juhayman al Utaybi seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, challenged the royal family’s religious credentials to rule over the two holy sites of Mecca and Medina. It was the first revolt from within Saudi Arabia by Saudis against the House of Saud since the failed Ikhwan rebellion in the twenties. 

The group that seized the mosque served an ideological precursor in the eighties for the Al Qaeda that would later emerge in the nineties. Osama bin Laden was a young man in 1979, alarmed by the Saudi military desecrating the holy site with tanks and artillery to flush out the rebels. The royal family had to call in foreigners, French special forces to defeat the rebels, foreshadowing when the House of Saud would call in American forces to defend the Kingdom in 1990 when Iraqi forces had invaded Kuwait.   The latter event is often attributed as the motivating factor as to why bin Laden revolted against the Saudi royal family.

While Pakistan is not considered part of the Middle East, events there and in neighbouring Afghanistan would eventually impact the region. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, prime minister of Pakistan, was executed in April after a military coup led by General Zia ul Haq.  Zia would go on to help spread a foreign, and more extreme, interpretation of Islam in Pakistani society during his rule in the eighties. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December, Zia supported the 
mujahideen resistance wholeheartedly. It was Pakistan and US support that allowed Bin Laden to set up shop in Peshawar, a Pakistani city near the border with Afghanistan, where he used his connections to set up financial and moral support for the mujahideen.  While Bin Laden’s network of foreign fighters played a marginal role in defeating the USSR, which withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the defeat of the Cold War superpower led to his belief that his network could bring down the remaining superpower, the US.

The Islamic Republic served as a model of power that threatened the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, leading it to export a more militant form of Wahhabism afterwards. Such ideology took root in madrassas and the clergy across Pakistan and Afghanistan, leading to the birth of the Taliban and its seizure of Afghanistan by the mid-nineties, providing a safe haven for Al Qaeda to plan the 9/11 attacks.

In a non-sequitur the Bush administration’s responded to the 9/11 attacks by including Iraq in its “War on Terror,” and America’s ensuing invasion allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to form in the chaos, eventually breaking away to become Daesh in 2014, a group that took more than four years to defeat, but still poses a threat.

The year 1979, like the Arab spring year of 2011, serves as a hallmark for the region. The year not only transformed the regional power structure but resulted in reverberations globally that still manifest 40 years later.   

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