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The Most Radical Thing About Master of None’s Islam Episode Is That It Isn’t About Religion

I’ve never seen my religion represented on TV the way it is on Master of None.
I’ve never seen Muslims represented on TV the way they are on Master of None.

Screengrab from Netflix

It’s been so long since I’ve seen my own religion depicted outside the context of Islamophobia and terror that even I was surprised by Master of None’s Season 2 episode “Religion.” Whether we’re trying to kill Iron Man, or running from counterterrorism agents on Homeland, or even being wrongfully accused of murder (partly out of post-9/11 fear) on The Night Of, I can’t think of one example of Muslims being depicted on TV except in association with terrorism.

But right from its opening scene, “Religion” took me away from the Islam I see on TV and back to the Islam I’ve lived my whole life. The episode opens on a mother warning her son to abstain from finishing the bacon he’s holding: “Bacon is pork. We are Muslim. We are not allowed to eat pork,” she warns, adding, “That is our religion.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard this exact same phrase growing up. Pop-Tarts, Jell-O, gummy bears, marshmallows, almost anything at a Korean or Italian restaurant—I was getting flashbacks to all the times my non-Muslim friends sent the fragrance of forbidden foods wafting in my direction, taunting me. “Mmm, so good” they teased. At the core of a Muslim’s identity, especially if you are in the religious minority, is what you aren’t supposed to be doing.

This gap between what I see on TV and what I live every day is why I’m pretty stoked on Aziz Ansari. I’m not just talking about his work on Master of None. His emergence as a reluctant pop-cultural ambassador for American Muslims (he himself is not religious) began in June, when he published an op-ed in the New York Times about why Trump made him fear for the safety of his family. Then, the day after Trump’s inauguration, there he was hosting Saturday Night Live. In his monologue, he reminded everyone that as long as we remember that we’re all American, we’ll be OK. “I think part of the problem is a lot of these people, they just haven’t interacted with any brown people in their normal life. The only people they see are these monsters in the news who are just a drop in the ocean.”

But what’s revolutionary about the episode is how it doesn’t speak to Trump’s election, or terrorism, or Islamophobia, or any of this—at least not directly. Instead, what’s revolutionary about it is how it depicts Islam just like any other religion. In that same monologue, Ansari suggested that we needed every image of Islamic terrorists counterbalanced by images that showed “some other brown people that are just up to normal stuff,” like “four other Muslim people that are eating nachos in Chicago.” “Religion” may be about more than just Chicagoans and their favorite snack foods, but what it does show is, in its own way, just as relatable: the conflict between how children are and what parents want them to be.

In the episode—which, like much of the show, is semi-autobiographical—Ansari’s character, Dev, ignores his mother’s warnings and eats the bacon anyway. I can’t lie: I cheered. I’ve spent my entire life staying away from pork for a lot of reasons, none of them being religious. While I do consider myself religious (if far from perfect), the real reason I don’t eat pork is not fear of God; I’m afraid of hurting my mother. She doesn’t deserve that.

This is a conflict anyone can relate to—and especially second-generation immigrants. Since my mom immigrated to this country in the early ’80s, all she has wanted is to protect her identity. She left home and moved to a brand new country where she only knew a handful of people. When she had children, raising us Muslim was her No. 1 priority. We went to Muslim schools, learned Arabic, stayed away from non-Muslim holidays. None of her kids ended up being particularly religious—most American kids aren’t. I can’t help but feel like a disappointment.

Toward the end of the episode, Dev is inspired to stop hiding. He orders a pork dish at a restaurant surrounded by his family, revealing he just isn’t devout like they expect him to be. “I’m not that religious,” he finally tells his parents. “And I eat pork. But it’s OK because I’m a good person and I’m 33 years old and I can make those decisions. I eat what I want. And I want to eat the crispy pork with broccoli.” I wanted to be happy for Dev, but I knew what was coming next. Later, his dad helps Dev realize it’s not about the pork. For his mom, it’s about her desire to raise a religious Muslim family. To her, Dev ordering pork means she failed as a parent.

This is a familiar story that can be told from the perspective of any religion. The only reason it happens to come from a Muslim perspective is that Ansari was raised Muslim. Swap this family for a Jewish one, or swap bacon for meat on Good Friday, and you’d have the same scenario.

There is, however, an added layer here, one that is particular to Muslim Americans. “For you guys, religion has its cultural value,” Dev tells his parents. But for him, his country has not allowed him to see Islam in purely religious terms: “It’s not like that for me. It’s people calling me terrorist and getting pulled out of airport security lines.” Too often, the Muslim American experience isn’t defined by believing in God or staying away from pork; it’s being a part of this community that’s constantly being misunderstood. The fact of our religious identity is enough for others to characterize us as a threat to core American principles. And because that identity is constantly under assault, to have part of your family abandon that identity is all the more heartbreaking.

Originally, this aspect of Muslim American life was an even larger aspect of the episode. The morning after the election, the show’s cast and crew were set to film a flashback scene, recreating an experience Ansari and his brother had after 9/11: An impatient driver would yell at Dev, “Hurry up, you terrorist!” And as co-creator Alan Yang said on Slate’s podcast Represent, he and Ansari considered adding a montage of the way Trump and people on Fox News talk about Muslims, as a way of responding to the outcome of the election. Ultimately, however, they decided against it. “It’s not meant to be a response to him, because frankly,” Yang said, “he doesn’t deserve everything in life to be about him.”

I still disappoint my mother in the different ways I interpret Islam. She’s much more conservative than I am. It took me a while to come back to Islam, but I had to do it on my own terms. The final moment in the episode shows Dev take an interest in discovering Islam for himself. He opens the Quran his mother gave him when he left for college and finds my favorite verse, which he then quotes in a text message to his mom: “Lakum deenukum waliya deen,” “For you is your religion and for me is my religion.” It’s a good message for the episode, but in the end, it’s not really what the episode was about. The episode, like the argument, wasn’t about the bacon, or Islamophobia, or Donald J. Trump. It was about a son’s relationship with his mother.

Read more in Slate about Master of None.