Growing up Muslim in the sleepy streets of Davis, Hasan Minhaj learned firsthand what it meant to be different.
On the night of his Davis High School prom, the 17-year-old knocked on his date’s door only to find the captain of the water polo team slipping a corsage onto her wrist.
Minhaj, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from India, said his date’s parents, who were white, thought Minhaj wouldn’t “be a good fit” in the pictures taken that night and helped their daughter make other arrangements with the white athlete.
Now a successful comic and a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” Minhaj has turned that humiliation into humorous fodder by joking about it in his routines. At the same time, he champions the cause of fighting discrimination and protecting vulnerable groups, whether they’re Muslims or same-sex couples, and isn’t shy about speaking out about racism.
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Earlier this month, Minhaj teamed up with religious scholar Reza Aslan to pen an open letter to American Muslims arguing that they should support same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court voted to recognize such unions nationwide. While that call upset many Muslims who believe the decision goes against the teachings of the Quran, Minhaj and Aslan argued that in the modern world, Muslims are often the subject of prejudice and shouldn’t advocate denying liberties for other groups.
“To me, the decision was a monumental moment for civil liberties for all minorities; it was our generation’s equivalent of Brown v. Board or Roe v. Wade,” Minhaj said, referring to the high court’s landmark decisions on segregation and abortion rights. “People felt like, ‘How do I balance my spiritual upbringing with this pluralistic decision made by a secular society?’
“What makes America great is you can still believe whatever you want to believe, but you can still respect and love other communities.”
What’s more, Minhaj and Aslan said, Muslims must do more than merely tolerate same-sex marriage – they should actively fight for the rights of gays and lesbians.
“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,” they wrote. “That’s how your LGBT brothers and sisters feel every day of their lives. Are you OK with that?”
Minhaj said the response to the letter has been overwhelmingly positive, even though a Public Religion Research Institute poll found less than half of American Muslims support same-sex marriage. Readers from as far away as Nigeria, Pakistan and East Asia, he said, contacted Minhaj with their appreciation for what he had written.
“We wanted it to be a discussion point, not a dividing point,” Minhaj said. “We didn’t want people to feel like ‘this is the way you’re supposed to believe.’ These are our feelings on what’s going on.”
Born and raised in Davis, Minhaj, 29, said growing up as one of the only dark-skinned kids in what he called “Anytown America” gave him a typical suburban experience, punctuated with bursts of racism.
When Minhaj was in the first grade, he has recounted in a podcast for the show “The Moth,” he fell in love with a girl, but proclaiming his crush only earned him the response: “You’re the color of poop!”
His awakening came at UC Davis, although the campus was just about 2 miles from the Minhaj family home. Studying political science there opened him up to a new world, he said.
After moving into the dorms, new friends showed him how to download online videos, including stand-up comedy by legends such as Chris Rock and George Carlin he had never seen before.
Inspired by Rock’s “Never Scared” TV special, Minhaj began creating and performing his own stand-up material at the UC Davis Coffee House and clubs in Sacramento. His big break came during his sophomore year, when he won a comedy competition hosted by the radio station WiLD 94.9.
The prize? An opening act at Comedy Jam 2008 in front of household names such as Katt Williams, Gabriel Iglesias and Russell Peters.
“That really gave me a lot of confidence, that I could go in there and beat out all these other local comics, some of whom were a lot older than I was,” Minhaj said.
Later in college, Minhaj commuted between campus and San Francisco comedy shows, and moved to the city after graduation. He then relocated to Los Angeles, where he performed until November, when he was brought onto “The Daily Show” based in New York.
Davis High School counselor Courtney Tessler remembered Minhaj as polite and respectful with an attractive, million-dollar smile. Tessler worked with Minhaj in the school’s Peer Helpers program, which paired up students who would work through their personal problems.
“From my end, he was one of those guys the girls really liked,” Tessler said. “In fact, when we were looking for Peer Helpers, I know it was girls who encouraged Hasan (to apply).”
Minhaj linked up with Aslan during the scholar’s May 14 appearance on “The Daily Show” although Aslan had already seen the Web series “The Truth with Hasan Minhaj.” The UC Riverside creative writing instructor made a splash in 2013 when he famously lobbed back questions from a Fox News reporter concerning his book about Jesus Christ.
“All brown people know each other,” Aslan said. “We’re both prominent Muslim figures, and there aren’t that many of us on television. There’s a connection we have with each other even when we haven’t actually met each other.”
The idea for the letter came about a month later when Minhaj called Aslan out of the blue. “He really massaged the piece, made sure we weren’t patronizing, and that we were respectful to all beliefs,” Aslan said.