Hasan Minhaj asked the question himself when he hosted the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner Saturday night: “Who would have thought, with everything going on in the country right now, that a Muslim would be standing on this stage?”
Even with the typical guest of honor noticeably absent, “The Daily Show” senior correspondent was a notable pick for the event — the first Muslim and first South Asian American to headline the annual Washington roast.
It took him just 30 seconds into his 25-minute set to bring up his religion.
Minhaj pulled from a comedy repertoire built on his experience as a member of a marginalized minority in America, from racist bullying in high school to recent hate crimes against Muslims.
Over the past few months, the 31-year-old has watched the Trump administration reshape the news media that his show comments on. Events have intensified his brand of socially conscious comedy and affected his own immigrant family. After the election, Minhaj told viewers that his mother was afraid that the ban on Muslims that Trump proposed during the campaign would keep her from returning to the country.
The comedian, who considers himself an “angry optimist,” voiced both frustration and honor on behalf of his faith during Saturday’s speech. “As a Muslim, I like to watch Fox News for the same reason I like to play ‘Call of Duty.’ Sometimes, I like to turn my brain off and watch strangers insult my family and my heritage,” he jabbed.
At the end of the night, he said, “Only in America can a first-generation Indian Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president.”
Though he isn’t as high-profile as many of the previous hosts, Minhaj represents what he calls “New Brown America.” The Comedy Central star joins a new generation of young performers like Aziz Ansari (“Parks and Recreation,” “Master of None”) and Riz Ahmed (“The Night Of,” “Rogue One”) who aim to reclaim their Muslim heritage from post-9/11 stereotypes and instead offer a richer view of navigating two cultures.
Minhaj’s one-man-show-turned-comedy-special “Homecoming King” premieres on Netflix on May 23. Filmed in his hometown of Davis, Calif., the show features real stories from Minhaj’s upbringing, like sneaking out of the house to go to prom.
Muslims make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center. That number is expected to double by 2050, making Islam the second-largest religion in the country, after Christianity. Only about 3 percent of Muslims in the United States come from India, like Minhaj’s family.
“I’m a first-generation kid in this country. I so identify with America and its culture. I’m a citizen, I was born here. I’m American,” Minhaj told the Daily Beast. “At the same time, like most first-generation kids, I have this other identity to another country back home, which is India. What’s interesting is from a young age, because I had to have this dual narrative, I’ve always had a soft spot for other marginalized groups, whether that’s LGBTQ people, women, the African American community, the Latino community, I’ve been able to connect to their civil rights struggle through my own feelings of racism or disenfranchisement.”
Growing up in a mostly white community in Northern California — the only brown kid in his class — he became interested in politics after the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, when he was reeling from prank calls, vandalism and a sense of America’s growing anti-Muslim sentiment.
He recounted on the “Mash-Up Americans” podcast, however, that his father told him to do the exact opposite: “Whatever you do, don’t tell people you’re Muslim, and don’t talk about politics.” Needless to say, he didn’t follow his dad’s advice.
Minhaj’s religion-savvy satire got him his “Daily Show” gig. He came on staff in 2014 — one of Jon Stewart’s last hires — after auditioning with a segment about Ben Affleck defending Muslims to atheist Sam Harris on “Real Time With Bill Maher.” On “The Daily Show,” now hosted by Trevor Noah, Minhaj has covered religious issues on punnily named segments called “Halal Things Considered” and “Hasan the Record.”
In recent months, Minhaj has asked supporters to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations to help support those affected by the new administration’s policies.
In addition to addressing instances of discrimination and violence against Muslims, Minhaj spoke out in the wake of the 2012 Sikh temple shooting and the Orlando nightclub massacre. The latter he brought up during last year’s Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association dinner, telling members of Congress that American needs them to “make our society better — not tweet, not tell us about your ‘thoughts and prayers.’”
Along with Reza Aslan — the Muslim scholar who hosts the CNN show “Believer” — Minhaj advocated for the American Muslim community to fight for LGBT rights. Fewer than half of Muslim Americans, 42 percent according to a Public Religion Research Institute poll, support same-sex marriage.
Think about the way people look at your hijabi sister or your bearded brother when they walk through the mall. Think about the grumbles and stares you get at airports. Think about the vitriol that’s spewed on you by your own elected political leaders. That’s how your LGBT brothers and sisters feel every day of their lives. Are you okay with that?
No one is asking you to change your beliefs. If you feel your faith tells you that homosexuality is haram, fine. We disagree with your interpretation, but you’re entitled to it …. Bottom line is this: Standing up for marginalized communities, even when you disagree with them, is not just the right thing to do, it’s the Muslim thing to do.
At the correspondents’ dinner, as well as on Facebook, Minhaj joked that Barack Obama was the first “Muslim president,” referencing the segment of the population who falsely believed he was a Muslim. Beneath a picture of his family posing with the Obamas and Bidens, Minhaj wrote, “Muslim family with the first Muslim President. What a run we had!”