Warning: This post contains spoilers from Season 2 of Master of None.
As the first week of Ramadan is celebrated around the world, food is at the forefront of many Muslim minds. It is a time when the most basic form of nourishment and sustenance is restricted in empathy to humanity and devotion to God.
Fittingly, just a few weeks before the holy month, Aziz Ansari’s hit comedy Master of None premiered its second season on Netflix to great fanfare. One of the most talked about episodes was one that revolved around food, family, and Islam.
First, let me say this: I do not care if Aziz Ansari eats bacon. Far from debating whether Ansari’s diet disqualifies him from being Muslim, the issue at hand is rather the way in which secular values and religious belief are portrayed in mainstream media.
In the case of Master of None, it is a convenient plot point for one episode, but not enough to contribute to a substantive commentary on belief or faith. Particularly because this show, like many shows, focuses on the secular individual rather than religious collective.
“This show, like many shows, focuses on the secular individual rather than religious collective.”
For Muslim Americans, this dichotomy is often difficult to navigate. As Nesrine Malik explains in her recent piece for NPR’s Code Switch:
The ways Muslims have been fingered, pathologized and persecuted mean that the Muslim identity is being calibrated and re-calibrated in order to settle upon one dominant narrative.
This fluctuating calibration relies upon a mix of racial and religious stereotypes to create the monster that is anti-Muslim hatred. As a result, the racialization of what is perceived to be Muslim casts a much larger net than those who are in fact practicing Muslims.
The victims of anti-Muslim hatred do not just include Muslims, but also Hindu and Sikh South Asian Americans. To speak to this conflation of terms and subsequent violence, mainstream media needs thoughtful and diverse portrayals of Muslim Americans, as well as South Asian Americans.
“Mainstream media needs thoughtful and diverse portrayals of Muslim Americans, as well as South Asian Americans.”
Ansari was right to include an episode on his Muslim American experiences in the newest season of his Netflix show. However, the way religion is displayed as an individualistic activity akin to Sunday brunch missed the mark. The episode begins with a montage of young children of all faiths begrudgingly attending church, running to temple, or reading their Scientology materials. A tween Ansari is shown at a friend’s kitchen counter eating eggs, toast, and bacon.
With a mouthful of bacon, Ansari answers his mother’s telephone call informing him not only to come home, but also, to his surprise, that Muslims do not eat pork. Young Ansari hangs up, but not before taking one last, heavenly bite of the crispy bacon strip. Later, 33-year-old Ansari comes clean about his haraam eating habits and reconciles his religious apathy with his parent’s beliefs.
Sounds sweet, right? And to some extent, it is. The episode, co-written by Ansari and his brother Aniz, demonstrates the comical, relatable experience of a family coming to terms with the changing times. It features a particularly tender moment when Ansari reflects on his parents’ religious teachings by reading the Qur’an. After disappointing his parents by admitting he is not religious, Ansari defends himself:
You guys have your interpretations, right? You eat non-halal. You used to smoke cigarettes. You don’t wear the hijab. Why can’t I have my interpretations where I’m just nice and I eat pork?…For you guys, religion has its cultural value. It’s not like that for me. People call me terrorist and I get pulled out of airport security lines.
What is this, Fox News? pic.twitter.com/IRVefHmRmT
— Master of None (@MasterofNone) May 28, 2017
From this perspective, religious belief is not necessarily about religion at all. Instead, religion is synonymous for personal interpretation, culture, rules, diet, morality, label, threat… And when something is everything, it often means nothing.
Ansari’s relationship with his slightly more observant cousin, Navid, perhaps best exemplifies this approach. The cousins engage in an awkward, yet sweet conversation to discover how religious each other is: Do you drink? Do your parents know? Do you eat pork?
These seemingly innocuous questions are frequently used by Muslims and non-Muslims alike to calibrate one’s religiosity. Navid admits that he occasionally attends Friday jummah prayer, fasts, and believes in God. Yet, he does not hesitate to take a bite out of Ansari’s cubano sandwich or skip Eid prayer for a BBQ festival.
That is the equivalent of skipping Christmas dinner for a BBQ festival. As a result, the scene is fun, light-hearted, but ultimately outrageous. The point here is not that Muslims, including myself, do not regularly skip out on religious gatherings or activities, but the pace at which Master of None depicts Navid’s shift from the label of ‘religiously observant’ to hog-wild (literally) is jarring.
As Buzzfeed’s Ahmed Ali Akbar explains:
There’s no way Navid would go from zero to pork in one conversation…I feel like it would take more than one conversation with your cousin to be like, alright, I’m down to eat pork and I’m down to miss Eid prayers. It requires more thought.
The exchange is devoid of emotion, nuance, and understanding of what exactly is being traded-off. Losing one’s religion, it turns out, is as easy as taking a bite out of a sandwich.
“Losing one’s religion, it turns out, is as easy as taking a bite out of a sandwich.”
The episode’s final scene depicts Ansari’s father and mother praying at their local mosque as Ansari goes out to brunch with his friends. The montage seems to serve two purposes: 1) to demonstrate that Ansari’s young community of friends is not unlike his parents’ older community of mosque-goers and thereby 2) to prove that Muslims are just like us.
It’s a heartfelt message that is difficult to counter, especially during this political moment. Yet, underlying the similarities between the restaurant and mosque settings present a thematic shift. While Ansari is depicted as the nuanced individual, it is contrasted by the rigid collective of his parents. It is the same individualism that Ansari asserts at the beginning of the episode by rebelliously eating the bacon against his mother’s wishes or later when he claims his own interpretation of religion.
Of course, this is not a new claim. Muslims from across the globe have centuries-old traditions of religious study, interpretation, and jurisprudence. Yet, this religious history which cannot be easily reduced to one single interpretation, culture, or identity is of no interest in this context.
Instead, Master of None presents the cosmopolitan millennial as divorced from any history. It is here, where much of the beauty of Islam and many other religious traditions often gets lost in the attempt to craft an assimilationist and secular narrative of religious experience. At the end of the episode it appears that ‘traditional’ practices will remain in the past with Ansari’s parents, as he charts his own future.
“Master of None presents the cosmopolitan millennial as divorced from any history.”
The secular narrative has its own history, however. In America, it is inextricably linked to Protestant values where individual, private belief is upheld over public demonstrations of faith. Author Karen Armstrong cautions against the notion of secularism without history. She argues:
Secularism has become so natural to us that we assume it emerged organically, as a necessary condition of any society’s progress into modernity. Yet it was in fact a distinct creation, which arose as a result of a peculiar concatenation of historical circumstances; we may be mistaken to assume that it would evolve in the same fashion in every culture in every part of the world.
When religion is framed solely in terms of the past, secularism is posited as an inevitability of modern life, rather than a particular development of history and a system of beliefs itself.
Considering the growing trend of religious apathy among young Americans, it is no wonder that this particular episode has largely been well-received. Yet, a broader understanding of how secularism is constructed in conversation with religion is important, regardless of one’s personal faith. Perhaps then we can better detect the various ways in which religion is stigmatized in the public sphere before discrimination is made into law.
To its credit, Master of None does stand against this tide and the show continues to chart new territory for underrepresented groups in mainstream media. However, for Muslims struggling between the political and personal implications of their faith, the search continues for a story of belief beyond bacon.
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Salwa Tareen is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School studying religion and politics in South Asia. Through her work, she seeks to explore the intersections of language, identity, and power whether in the form of poetry, dialogue, or academic research. She is also a contributor for Brown Girl Magazine. As a Pakistani-American woman born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Canada, in her spare time Salwa enjoys crafting clever quips to the question: “No, where are you really from?”