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Have mosque, will travel

Can Saskatchewan Muslims make it south of the border?


BY Lisa Whittington-Hill
Photography courtesy CBC

Standing in line at the airport, a young Muslim man chats away on his cell phone. After casually uttering the words “suicide” and “Allah” in the same sentence, police appear and drag the man away for questioning. What could easily be a frontpage headline is actually fiction—a scene from the Canadian sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie.

The CBC comedy about Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbours living together in the fictional prairie town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, enters its second season in October. Since its debut in January, the series has won international awards, averaged one million viewers an episode and been picked up by broadcasters in France and Switzerland. The New York Times, Stephen Colbert and the BBC have all recognized the show for promoting understanding of Muslims at a time when anyone named Mohammad is considered an enemy. By adopting a sense of humour, Little Mosque on the Prairie manages to get its message across and avoid being labelled overtly political in the process.

In the show’s first episode the town’s new Muslim spiritual leader, Amaar, jokes, “Muslims around the world are known for their sense of humour” after he is detained by airport police on a charge he calls “flying while Muslim.” By humanizing Muslims, the sitcom provides welcome relief from depictions in most mainstream media or the racial profiling of shows like 24, which has been criticized by Arabs and Muslims for its promotion of stereotypes and promotion of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment.

“I think people are assuming because of the title and the subject matter that it’s going to be really controversial and political,” creator Zarqa Nawaz said before the show’s premiere. Nawaz, a filmmaker and former CBC radio producer, is a Canadian Muslim of Pakistani origin who grew up in Toronto, but moved to Saskatchewan 10 years ago.

Serious television dramas dealing with presidents, terrorism and war are political—think The West Wing or Commander in Chief. Little Mosque on the Prairie’s commentary is certainly as political as these shows, but is softened by the show’s comedic approach.

Little Mosque on the Prairie is not the first sitcom to sneak politics in under the guise of humour. It’s reminiscent of 1970s sitcoms like All in the Family, which used its central character, the racist Archie Bunker, to dispel stereotypes and build understanding. The Mary Tyler Moore Show used humour to explore the issues of single, working, liberated women. Just as Little Mosque on the Prairie is set against the backdrop of our current political climate, M*A*S*H used the backdrop of the Korean War to raise awareness of the political issues associated with war. We need look no further than The Simpsons or South Park for modern examples of shows that raise awareness by combining social commentary and comedy.

One of the challenges for a show like Little Mosque on the Prairie is finding the balance between offending and entertaining. With the “war on terror” still going strong, the show’s subject matter is touchy for some viewers. There’s also the danger that comedy will trivialize the subject matter. In one episode, strict Muslim parents try to decide whether their children can celebrate Halloween, a traditionally Christian holiday honouring a pagan festival. They decide to celebrate it, but only after a name change to—wait for it—Halal-oween.

There’s also the danger that the show will reinforce, rather than dispel, stereotypes. In one episode, Baber, a conservative Muslim, argues that gay pride should be changed to “gay ashamed.” Way to promote tolerance and understanding Baber. Then there’s the novelty factor associated with the show being the first Muslim comedy to air on North American television. The series premiere drew over two million viewers, but it remains to be seen whether viewers would rather tune in to Canadian Idol than watch a cast of Muslims argue against worshiping any idols.

There is talk of the mosque moving south of the border, with producers in negotiations with U.S. networks to carry the series. Corner Gas, a Canadian sitcom set in yet another fictional Saskatchewan town, was exported to the U.S. this summer after five seasons in Canada and is broadcast in more than 20 countries. When it comes to American viewers, “small town Canada with a little Muslim twist” might have a hard time competing with a tight T-shirt sporting Kiefer torturing terrorists.

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