When "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart first interviewed King Abdullah II of Jordan in September 2010, the monarch and comedian really hit it off. Stewart praised Abdullah for his moderation, saying he had spent a lifetime “fighting poverty.” The king chuckled, thanked Stewart and returned the compliment. “I watch ‘The Daily Show’ every night,” he said, half-kidding.
As the two men chatted, a student named Hatim al-Shuli was spending his second month in a Jordanian military prison, after he allegedly penned a poem “critical of the king” — a crime that carries a three-year sentence. (Al-Shuli denied writing it.)
No one would ever suspect that the guest on “The Daily Show” that night, with his charming English accent and dignified demeanor, was at the helm of a family-run autocracy with a long track record of human rights abuses.
Three years later, Stewart began shooting “Rosewater,” his directorial-debut film about the torture and imprisonment of the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari at the hands of the Iranian police. The movie is shot in Abdullah’s backyard, Jordan’s capital, Amman.
Using an actual Jordanian prison as a movie set, Stewart staged emotional scenes in which the Iranian secret police torment Bahari and accuse him of being a foreign spy. Stewart later said that he hoped that audiences would take away from the movie that “those who wish to express themselves should not ever be subjected to the terrible conditions that Maziar found himself in.”
Unfortunately for many in Jordan, Bahari’s plight would not be unfamiliar. For the past 15 years, political life in the kingdom has been dominated by Abdullah, Queen Rania and a close network of allied families known as east bankers, who hail from the east side of the Jordan river.
Abdullah inherited the throne from his father, Hussein, who inherited it from his father, Abdullah I, who inherited it from the British Empire. The small kingdom, which is about the size of Indiana, has always been a close ally of the United States.
In the early days of the “war on terrorism,” the Central Intelligence Agency would send terror suspects to Jordan to be tortured by Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, a secret police force that reports directly to the king. Inside the kingdom, questioning the political order is rarely tolerated and political opponents are often intimidated and detained.
A 2008 Human Rights Watch report on the Jordanian prison system found torture to be “routine and widespread” for both political prisoners and ordinary criminals. Every prison in the country had a special iron holding pen where inmates were often suspended by their wrists and beaten with knotted electrical cables and hoses.
In the wake of that report, Jordan undertook reforms, says Adam Coogle, Human Rights Watch’s Amman-based researcher. Over the last decade, the kingdom upgraded its prisons and largely restricted torture to suspected members of terrorist organizations. Soon after Abdullah appeared on “The Daily Show,” in the face of pressure from foreign human rights organizations, he pardoned the imprisoned al-Shuli.
Still, when the Arab Spring protests hit Amman, Jordanian police rounded up protesters, beat them and quickly quashed any hope of significant political change. A few months after the crackdown, Abdullah again appeared on “The Daily Show,” where he expressed support for the idea of the Arab Spring, but claimed that each country should have its “own unique experiment” with democracy. Stewart didn't ask for specifics, and instead suggested that it was the king’s “humility” that “earned him the authority” to govern Jordan as a hereditary monarch.
Even after the threat of the Arab Spring subsided, significant abuses persist and Jordan’s political system remains restricted. The 2014 Annual Report from Human Rights Watch report finds that “perpetrators of torture or other ill-treatment continued to enjoy near total impunity. Credible allegations of torture or other ill-treatment are routinely ignored.” Just last year the government blocked access to over 300 news websites in a nationwide crackdown on independent journalism.
The irony of shooting a movie intended to criticize the abuses of Iran, all the while cozying up to Abdullah, seems to escape Stewart. In promoting “Rosewater,” he has often recounted to interviewers that filming in the family-ruled kingdom was both cheap and easy. “The general tenor of Amman is very calm, ” he told National Public Radio’s Terry Gross.
A few months after Stewart finished filming, Jordanian military police arrested three opposition activists — Hamam Qafisheh, Ayman al-Bahrawy and Diaa al-Shalaby — for producing and distributing posters associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the Geneva-based Human Rights watchdog Al-Karama, the organizers were tortured by Jordanian police and then transferred to Al-Ramimeen prison, just outside of Amman — the very prison Stewart used to film “Rosewater.”
When asked, the producers of the Rosewater would not discuss abuses in the Jordanian prison system. And they would not speak more broadly about Stewart’s approach to the king, and why in two interviews on “The Daily Show,” the host failed to ask Abdullah a single question about Jordan’s human rights record. When Rolling Stone asked Stewart about the decision to shoot in Jordan, which requires permission from the Royal Film Commission of Jordan run by Abdullah’s brother, he responded vaguely. “Uh … people on the set have certain connections with people who were maybe in the government there,” he said.
That Stewart appears completely unconcerned with Jordan’s political climate is not entirely unsurprising. In fact, Adam Coogle, of Human Rights Watch, says the comedian’s attitude is typical of Westerners, whose perception of Jordan is limited to its role as a strong ally to the United States and a necessary interlocutor with Israel. “Jordan spends a fortune on PR, and it works,” Coogle said. “Then they can say one thing to people like Stewart, and then turn around and do whatever they want at home.”
“Honestly, it makes my job very difficult when I’m trying to call attention to Jordan’s political climate and human rights abuses, and everyone continues to say that Jordan is run by these nice guys,” Coogle said.
Stewart’s film, “Rosewater,” may win an Oscar and in doing so draw attention to the troubling atmosphere of oppression for journalists working in Iran. As an enemy of the United States, Iran’s human rights record is already the source of justifiable but also self-serving outrage. To draw public attention to the conduct of U.S. allies such as the kingdom of Jordan is a much less comfortable exercise. It upsets the fundamental fallacy that U.S. policy abroad is guided by principles beyond U.S. security and economic interests.
This task seems perfectly suited for an iconoclastic political comedian like Stewart, who has made a career out of exposing the hypocrisy of those in power. Of course, he can’t reverse Jordan’s human record or push for regime change. But he could at least point out the absurdity that an unelected monarch with a vicious human rights record claims the mantle of the Arab Spring. And that the premier U.S ally in the region imprisons students for their poetry.
In the end, by lobbing softballs at the king of Jordan and accepting his political authority at face value, Stewart ducked both a political and comedic opportunity. Imagine if Stewart interviewed Abdullah wearing a Burger King crown. Or if he sat the king in an ornamented throne.
Now that would have been gutsy political humor worthy of “The Daily Show.”