When it comes to producing a funny television show or movie in Canada, producers here have a reliable stable of topics: French-English relations, urban-rural dynamics and anything that involves a bumbling politician or the United States.Niiice. I see the Canadian right-wing is every bit as classy as our own.
But Islam — something of a third rail of comedy throughout the Western world — did not make the list, which is one reason the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s new situation comedy, “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” is attracting such attention here. “It is a risk doing a sitcom about what can be considered a very touchy subject,” said Kirstine Layfield, executive director of network programming at CBC.
But last Tuesday’s series premiere attracted 2.09 million viewers, impressive in a country where an audience of one million is a runaway hit. The CBC had not had a show draw that size audience in a decade, according to the network.
The show follows a small group of Muslims in, of all places, a prairie town in Saskatchewan where, in the first episode, the group was trying to establish a mosque in the parish hall of a church. A passer-by, seeing the group praying, rushes to call a “terrorist hot line” to report Muslims praying “just like on CNN,” which touches off a local firestorm.
Hoping to avoid making a stir in the town, the group hires a Canadian-born imam from Toronto who quits his father’s law firm to take the job — career suicide, his father thinks. On the way, he is detained in the airport after being overheard on his cellphone saying, “If Dad thinks that’s suicide, so be it,” adding, “This is Allah’s plan for me.”
Later, a leader of the Muslim group is seen defending to a local person the plan to turn the parish hall into a mosque. “It’s a pilot project,” he says, leading the man to exclaim wide-eyed, “You’re training pilots?!”
The show’s creator, Zarqa Nawaz, said that she was not trying to bridge all of the cultural gaps, but that she hoped the program could elicit laughs on all sides and perhaps foster a better understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.
“I want the broader society to look at us as normal, with the same issues and concerns as anyone else,” said Ms. Nawaz, who based the series loosely on her own experiences as a Muslim woman who moved from Toronto to the prairie. “We’re just as much a part of the Canadian fabric as anyone else.”
The show has generally been well received by Muslim leaders, who welcome the light touch it brings to issues that are normally debated in numbing seriousness.
“Muslims are a bit late in laughing at themselves, but we have to use humor to remedy these divisions, just like any community,” said Mohamed Elmasry, an imam and president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.
The show has been criticized for treating too lightly the threat posed by radical Islam and the imams who preach it. The newly hired imam in “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” Amaar Rashid, is clean-shaven, wears tight jeans and has the “ravishing looks of a soap-opera star,” as the columnist Margaret Wente wrote in the Toronto daily newspaper The Globe and Mail.
“If there’s an imam on Earth who resembles this one, I will convert to Islam, don the veil and catch the next plane to Mecca,” she added.
But what some see as a weakness, others see as a strength. Syed Asad Dean, chairman of the Meadowvale Islamic Center in Mississauga, a western suburb of Toronto, said portraying Muslims as moderate members of the mainstream could have a beneficial effect on young Muslims.I really hope this show gets picked up in the U.S. What I like most about it (admittedly, based on a handful of gags quoted in a news story) is that it pokes much-deserved fun at anti-Muslim paranoia. Because people who see all Arabs as potential terrorists, and who feel threatened every time they hear someone speaking Arabic are silly at best, and bigoted at worst. It sounds like this show is trying to counter that mentality by showing Muslims as just folks, who happen to dress differently and worship a different God (or the same God under a different name). I'll go out on a limb here and say that most Muslims do not hate Christians, are not plotting jihad, and are not serving some sort of sinister hidden agenda.
“More extreme Muslims are telling our youth that Canada is not interested in our community, so something like this works dead against that type of mentality,” he said. “The youth see it on television and say, hey, they recognize us and they actually made an investment to talk about us and our life in Canada.”
In the United States, only cable stations have responded so far, but CBC officials say they are hoping to pitch the show to the larger networks.
I'm not advocating a total lack of vigilance, just pointing out that if you think there's a terrorist plot unfolding before your eyes every time you see a couple of Muslims talking, then you might as well cower indoors every time it rains so that the lightning won't get you. Just use some common sense. For example, if you see a scruffy, disreputable figure furtively skulking around a skyscraper or industrial installation taking pictures... well, okay, it's probably me. But if it isn't, then use your own best judgment (no gunplay!). If you're not sure, try to distract them with chocolate or techno-gadgets.