Season 2 of Aziz Ansari’s hit Netflix series “Master of None” was released earlier this year. The series starts off quirky and cute as Aziz’s character, Dev Shah, is navigating the cobblestone streets of Italy with his friends, Italian and American alike. Dev’s search for love, as seen in the previous season, continues between him mastering the art of making pasta and exploring Italy. The seemingly uncontroversial, everyday search for love is halted abruptly in the third episode of the season.
The “Religion” episode starts off with a relatable sequence of scenes of children of various religions and backgrounds arguing with their parents about attending their respective religious services. The scene switches to a young Dev Shah eating breakfast at a friend’s home. He is in the middle of eating bacon when his mom calls and informs him that Muslims don’t eat pork. It is here we see Dev having his first qualm with his religion. It resolves when he decides to eat the bacon anyways and keeps it from his parents. This begins a life of Dev breaking the Islamic rule of not eating pork.
During the episode, we see Dev ingesting pork and even convincing his Muslim cousin, Navid, to break a few rules by not fasting. Dev calls on his cousin’s curiosity and tempts him to try a Cubano sandwich. Navid is grateful for Dev’s guidance, thanking him for introducing him to pork and for persuading him not to fast. Dev is then given the “bad-influence cousin” role as his rule-breaking tendencies rub off on his younger cousin, who suggests they both skip the Eid congregation and attend Smorgasburg’s pork festival instead.
While at the festival, Dev runs into his lesbian friend who inspires him to not hide how religious he is. Following that advice, Dev orders pork at a restaurant in the interest of being honest with his parents, which leads them to leave in an angry huff.
Once home, his parents give him a lecture asking him about his lack of religious identity. Dev counters this by saying he has issues with Islam and its “stuff with women.” It is never specified what he is referring to by that comment, but his disdain for the religion is apparent in his tone. His parents blame the faults of Muslims on their “bad interpretation” of Islam.
The juxtaposition of his religious interpretation compared with his parents’ is seen in the final scene showing Dev drinking at a bar with his friends and his parents greeting friends at prayer.
As a Muslim, I am glad religion got covered at all. Aziz didn’t have to do that, nor did he have any responsibility to cover Islam. However, it didn’t really contain the realistic aspect that I was hoping for. Between the stereotypical, radical portrayal of Muslims as terrorists as seen in Hollywood and Aziz’s portrayal, “Master of None” was definitely closer to reality than most shows but it still didn’t completely hit the mark.
Because consuming pork and alcohol are two of the most famously forbidden acts one must resist in Islam, the casual, care-free way in which Navid went from moderately religious to pork-crazy was a bit far-fetched. Most Muslims are more centered in the scale between religious and nonreligious, breaking a few rules but certainly not the most forbidden ones. Many Muslims drink alcohol but eating pork is easily avoidable in today’s society compared to drinking. Seeing Navid go from zero to pork was definitely rushed and had all the sensitivity of a blunt axe.
Moreover, Navid was portrayed as an oppressed Muslim who Dev “rescued” from the throws of Islam. This was a little insulting, especially given that the episode never discussed why pork was forbidden in Islam. The reason pork is not allowed in Islam is first and foremost because God said so. Another reason is because of the health concerns pork raises.
As a Muslim who grew up in America, I have definitely been seduced by the idea of alcohol. The way alcohol is so integrated in American society, present in pasta dishes or at parties, it’s very difficult for one to navigate their social life around it. I’ve even come so far as pouring myself a small glass of tequila and opening a beer can. But I’ve never gone through with it because breaking one of the most infamous rules of my religion takes more than two minutes standing at a restaurant counter.
The entire character development of Navid was very quick and didn’t make sense when accounting for the internal conflict that accompanies every rebellious decision. One does not just abandon the lifestyle they grew up with from a few teasing comments by their cousin. It was also strange to not have a character to match the willingness of Navid to break traditional Islamic rules. For example, had there been another character who was tempted to break the rules but refrained, that would have been more relatable and realistic because that is the situation for most modern Muslims.
Part of the problem is the burden of expectation that is held when something that’s never been done before is done. Viewers can’t expect Aziz to cover all of the bases of Muslim identity in a 20-minute episode, nor is it fair to him to spend an entire season speaking about the religion. It’s unfair to him. Reality is, Muslims, and any marginalized group of people, shouldn’t bear the burden of explaining their religion because it is not often covered in the entertainment industry.
This topic goes hand in hand with the trend of celebrating “secular Muslims” in Hollywood. This term refers to the Muslim characters we never see practicing Islam, rather who are more assimilated into American culture and are Muslim only by label. Hollywood has fabricated this limited scope of how they perceive Muslims: in the stereotypical way as terrorists, or as the westernized, secular Muslim. There is no broad range of the different Muslim identities that are portrayed in shows and some of the fault lies in the limited roles available for Muslims. Perhaps if more Muslims were depicted in Hollywood, there would be the greater chance to show the various identities of the everyday Muslim, to the point where being Muslim doesn’t need to be a focal point in the show.