In September 2004, I made a presentation to the annual Muslims for Peace and Justice conference in Regina. There, I met a young woman named Zarqa Nawaz, who had moved to Saskatchewan from Toronto. She was a filmmaker, working on a documentary about women’s roles in mosques. A year later, the National Film Board released Me and the Mosque. Nawaz mentioned that she was also working on a sitcom about Muslim life on the Prairies that she hoped to pitch to the CBC. That, of course, became last year’s hit show, Little Mosque on the Prairie.
Since I live in the United States, I was only able to watch the first season when the DVD became available at the end of last year. As such, my comments are limited to that first season. On the whole, this was a great show. Muslims on television are either ignored (aside from this show, can you name another Muslim character on television?) or stereotyped as villains (was your answer the terrorists in 24, the terrorists in Sleeper Cell, the torturer on Lost or the prisoners on OZ?). Little Mosque and CBS’s Aliens in America are among the few shows to present some of the ordinariness of North American Muslim life.
This show from a Muslim creator marks another important development: Muslims becoming more involved in representing ourselves in the media. The show is quite useful for raising, in a gentle way, some of the many issues that affect Muslim lives. One gets short primers on Islam in every episode.
I also like the show because it is set in small town Canada, not one of the big urban centres of Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. It also helps viewers to understand that Muslim Canadians are to be found everywhere. Vibrant Muslim communities exist in Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Halifax. One of the first Muslim communities in Canada was in Lac La Biche, Alta., and the oldest mosque in Canada is in Edmonton. The show is as much about the struggles between Muslims and non-Muslims as it is about the city and country versions of what it means to be a Canadian.
The show even deals with the variety within Muslim communities. Even in this small community, the Muslims are African (Fatima from Nigeria), Arab (Yasir from Lebanon), South Asian (Baber), Canadian-born (Amaar) and Canadian-converted (Sarah). There are those who are progressive and those who are traditional, those who are observant and those who aren’t too concerned about their lack of observance. Issues that are important to Muslims and non-Muslims alike are discussed, including the roles of men and women, dating and sexuality, children’s upbringing, and marriage.
Ironically, one danger that I see with the show is the sometimes-caricatured picture of Christianity. I know that it’s a sitcom, but it was troubling for me to see an episode in which a visiting Anglican archdeacon speaks with a pronounced Scottish accent and is overly concerned about money. I wonder how many Anglican archdeacons in Canada speak with an English accent, let alone a Scottish one (I know that the actor in question, Colin Mochrie, was born in Scotland, so this may be an inside joke). I wonder how Scots feel when, for the thousandth time, people connect them with a concern for money. Those of us who have been caricatured for so long in the media have a special burden, I think, to make sure that we don’t turn around and do the same thing to others.
Another minor quibble is that not every episode needs to be about some aspect of Islam. Yes, it’s a show about Muslims, but sometimes Muslims don’t have Islam as their sole motivator. That said, I think this show does a wonderful job of integrating Muslims into the Canadian sitcom. Short of producing a Muslim hockey player in the NHL, this is a great way of entering the Canadian discourse.
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