By Sabina Khan Ibarra
Aziz Ansari’s Netflix comedy “Master of None” (based loosely on his own life) recently dropped season two, which included a thoughtful, nuanced episode that tackled the complex topic of religion and how religion is passed on from immigrant parents to their American children (who don’t care so much to be religious) with honesty and wit.
Briefly, the episode titled “Religion,” was about how non-practicing Muslim American Dev (Ansari), who loves bacon and doesn’t go to Eid prayers, is willing to pretend to be more religious for the sake of his parents when their guests come into town. The guests – Uncle, Auntie and cousin Navid – visit during the end of Ramadan. Dev convinces Navid to break fast and soon Navid tries pork and realizes he quite enjoys the taste.
Navid suggests that he and Dev pretend to be sick on Eid so that they can go to a BBQ Festival. Later, Dev admits to all the guests that he isn’t as religious as he pretends to be and upsets his mother. At the end, he reads the Quran (a gift from his mother), and the episode ends on a positive note that shows an understanding between mother and son and respect for each other’s beliefs. Find a more detailed synopsis here).
The short episode tried to tackle a big concept in a short span of time, and I think it created a quite compelling episode that left the audience asking all the right questions — a mark of a good show. But there were things about the episode that also troubled me.
Things I loved: Dev’s visitors, Auntie and Uncle, were portrayed as more religious than Dev’s parents. But, what made them three dimensional was that they were basketball fans (like my parents!). It was refreshing to see this in a mainstream TV show as not something explained or viewed as odd, but as something that simply is.
I loved the way the show also addressed the complicated lives some Muslims lead — the way immigrant parents uniquely integrate their set of religious and cultural rules with things learned from their environment. This push and pull between the “Mother country” and America. With their second-generation kids, these lines are often instilled in a solid and unwavering manner.
But these lines often don’t remain solid as families age, regardless of the culture around.
This leads to the forever complicated relationships between immigrant parents and their children, which is another thing I loved about this episode: It wasn’t preachy, and it wasn’t obvious. The issues brought up flowed organically and kept me engaged.
I loved that at a key moment with Dev and his mother temporarily estranged over his declaration that he eats pork, Dev pulled out the Quran his mother gave him when he went away to college and highlighted the ayah about no compulsion in religion (Islam). Then he texted the verse to his mother.
The short montage – a brief glimpse of the father praying at a mosque with a diverse congregation and Dev attending a party with his friends and drinking alcohol — at the end was sweet and did a lot in terms of silent art. We are given images that seemingly contradict each other but in fact just show how multifaceted Muslims – humans — are.
Bonus points for mentioning the TSA struggles.
But, there was something about the episode that I didn’t love. In fact, the more I think about it, I am irritated.
While the montage showed older/religious Muslims and younger/non-religious Muslims, I was left wondering if this this “nuanced” episode wasn’t as nuanced as I thought. The episode leaves almost no room for people like me — Muslim American second generation, under 40s, who considers themselves religious, educated and fun.
Even Navid, who was a bit more religious than Dev (if only because he seems not to know any better) becomes enlightened by Dev. to enjoying the pleasures of life that are considered haram (forbidden) in Islam, like eating pork. He changes, and suddenly his character becomes more palatable. Navid’s evolution is an important storyline.
It’s not that they are anti religion; in fact, they seem to respect their parents’ religion. But, they almost divorce themselves from it. It’s almost as if these guys are considered part of norm because they reject the faith.
What’s more worrisome is the message is that being different, or more religious, seems either to signify “older generations who have yet to evolve” or someone who just hasn’t been exposed to better (nonreligious) ways. By doing this, the episode further perpetuates the message that anything different, or even more religious is, “other” and “not one of us.”
The episode reminded me of “well meaning liberals.” You know the ones who like you if you aren’t too Muslim or the ones who constantly ask you about terrorism, Malala and FGM.
These liberals love the progressive movement when it means erasing religion from identity, instead of accepting it as a part of those Muslims who identify as liberals. It’s because trying to understand something complex is difficult for some. They’d rather keep their little boxes and labels and have us work around it instead of making the boxes less rigid.
I truly appreciated that this was Ansari’s story and I find it refreshing how the episode deals with the complexities of parent and adult children relationships. However, we don’t want to be left with two extremes of the Muslim spectrum that is shown on television – either a terrorist/cab drivers or nonreligious (non-threatening) Muslims.
So, while I love the show for it’s diverse cast/production and yes, nuanced storylines, I wish that “Master of None” had worked a little harder and pushed a little more to make the show a little less of what people already think. I wish I wasn’t left feeling that the episode implied that religion was something that people had to grow out of to progress, be cool, and normal. It just seemed to further otherize those who are religious. And that is a problem.
Realistically, I guess I can’t expect Ansari to do it all. He told his story and he did it well. Now it is time for others to tell their stories – the religious and the non-religious, and everything in between – so that the spectrum we see on the television is full and a true (or close to true) representation of Muslims in America.
Sabina Khan-Ibarrais a freelance writer and editor. She has written for Huffington Post, The Tempest, Love Inshallah, Altmuslim, Patheos Muslim and other sites. She created Muslimah Montage as a platform for women to share their stories. She is an MFA creative non-fiction candidate at San Francisco State University.