'Master of None's' Religion Episode Is the Most Honest Portrayal of Modern Islam on TV
Aziz Ansari is at his best portraying the bad-influence cousin stuffing his face with pork.
Even though I stopped praying five times a day, observing Ramadan and generally following any kind of religious rules a long time ago, I've yet to really shed the psychological identity of being a Muslim. Maybe it's because I still can't bring myself to eat pork or because for many of us who grew up in the crosshairs of Western and Eastern societies, Islam is not just a religious identity but a cultural one. It informs the way we talk to each other, the food we eat and of course, the generational guilt we can never quite seem to get rid of. It's been as much a connection to my family and my heritage as it has been a connection to god. This tension between who I was and who I am has never been so perfectly captured for me in mainstream pop culture than in an episode of the latest season of Aziz Ansari's Master of None.
The episode called "Religion" opens with young kids of different faiths being dragged to various churches, synagogues and mosques. Eventually we come to a young Dev (Ansari's character), about to eat breakfast after a weekend sleepover. He's encountering bacon for the first time, as many of us Muslims did, at a white friend's house. His mom calls and interrupts his first bite of the crispy snack and informs him that bacon is pork and it's not allowed in his religion. He hangs up the phone and eats it anyway. Present-day Dev has long since ditched any pork-related qualms and Islam is as relevant to his daily life as dinosaurs. But when his pious aunt and uncle come to town his parents want him to play the role of dutiful and observant Muslim son. It's a role he resents but begrudgingly plays because it would be too hard to disappoint his mother. It's a role most of us are very familiar with. His hipster, pork-eating, booze-drinking self is contrasted by his seemingly observant younger cousin.
"Religion" peaks with an epic pork-fest between Dev and his cousin and a moment of bravery where Dev finally orders pork in front of his family in an effort to exert his adulthood and independence. As it only could have, that burst of confidence ends with his mom giving him the silent treatment for a couple of weeks (I know it well). In the end Dev's dad conveys to him that for his parents, his attachment to their religion is an attachment to them. A carrying on of their traditions and memories. But for Dev, it's an unnecessary affectation that is getting in the way of a more authentic relationship with his parents.
One of the most real moments in the episode for me comes when Dev offers his religious cousin his first bite of bacon and it's slowly revealed that his cousin has strayed in his own way, with alcohol. It's a scene that's played out thousands of times between cousins, siblings and friends in the Muslim world. That knowing look and pause before you too admit that you've kissed a boy or downed a vodka Red Bull.
This push and pull for second generation immigrants informs our entire identity. What we reject is almost as important as what we embrace and for a lot of us the first thing to go is religion, or at least the tenets that have become annoying or cumbersome to our newly formed westernized desires. No alcohol or drugs? Boring! No sex before marriage? Yeah not gonna happen. Pork? Well it depends, is it pizza day at school? But while I enjoyed all these things in private, I never dared let these pleasures slip into my at-home persona. While my white friends were brazenly sneaking sips from every bottle of their parents' well-stocked liquor cabinets, I was doing a full body wash before I dared come home after a couple of drinks, convinced they could smell vodka through my pores. Long after I stopped believing in any type of god, I still dutifully went to Friday prayers, nodding and "mashallah'ing" my way through lectures on hell and the hereafter. Even at 34 years old, I still order a Coke when I'm out for dinner with my parents and despite being married I would prefer they go to the grave assuming I'm a virgin.
Ansari hasn't spoken often about growing up Muslim, except for his op-ed for the New York Times in the wake of Trump's travel ban and again in his similarly themed SNL monologue. But through "Religion" he manages to do what so few films and television shows have done before and that's modernize and humanize the Muslim experience. Our "Muslim-ness" is not defined in North America by our decision to eat or not eat pork or wear hijab, it's defined by our skin colour and our names. The nuance of our relationship to our history and our religion is too often relegated to the back-burner as we have to collectively answer for the rotten few who have hijacked our culture and our faith. While it's easy and natural to have conversations about what Islam means to us between ourselves, we're rarely afforded the privilege of having them in the public sphere.
This is something that Ansari and Master of None co-creator Alan Yang have already done so well through last season's episode about the marginalization of Asians in Hollywood. He was able to deftly capture genuine hurt and frustration through a funny, realistic portrayal of our experiences in pop culture and how that informs how others see us and inevitably how we see ourselves.
With episodes like "Religion" he once again underscores the need to have these conversations, not just with our parents and our communities but with those who misunderstand us. We need to start demanding portrayals of ourselves that are more than just religious stereotypes, layered with subtlety, complexity and humanity. And maybe, possibly, we should let our parents know we've tried bacon and it's actually pretty good. [Not me though mom!]
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