A little mosque grows

Coming to a TV screen near you: the Canadian sitcom that pokes fun at Muslims.

    The programme shows the difficulties Muslims have
    integrating in a remote community [CBC]
    Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) comedy about Muslims in a small Canadian town, has become so popular after its first season that it is about to be shown in the Middle East, Turkey, and the UK.


    In its debut in 2006, the Muslim-themed sitcom tackled subjects such as religion, race and ethnicity and attracted an average of 1.2 million viewers a week.


    Media experts say the attraction is that Muslims are portrayed as they have not been seen before in Western media - as regular people with everyday problems who do not take themselves too seriously and have a sense of humour.


    Lee-Ann Goodman, culture and media reporter for The Canadian Press, Canada's national news agency, says that the sitcom "shows Muslims to be utterly normal".


    "They're not terrorists, they're not religious freaks. There's nothing odd or menacing about the Muslim characters on Little Mosque on the Prairie - they're just like any other Canadian citizens."


    Cultural collisions


    The plot - a city slicker imam moving to the small fictional town of Mercy, Saskatchewan - resembles the American drama, Northern Exposure, about a New York City doctor who goes to Alaska to practice medicine.


    In this show, Mercy's Muslims establish the town's first mosque - a church they lease on false pretences.


    The new mosque becomes the focus of a small, but suspicious Canadian community learning how to deal with the new culture in its midst.


    The programme strikes a chord in its depiction of the cultural collision between Westerners brimming with paranoia about "terrorists" and Muslims struggling to maintain their customs and identities.


    In an early episode, Amaar, a young Muslim lawyer from Toronto, is chatting on his mobile phone in public and innocently uses the words "suicide" and "blow-up".


    That conversation coupled with his dark complexion is all it takes for the police to begin interrogating him.


    International distribution


    Mary Darling, executive producer of the sitcom, says: "This creates a chance to see characters struggling and communities rubbing up against each other."


    Though the series is about Muslims, Darling expects it will continue to attract a range of viewers.


    "The show tells universal stories about the interactions and relationships between people and familiar topics about immigrants. It is enlightening. People will come away with an understanding of a misrepresented group," she says.


    As the first season wrapped up, WestWind Pictures, the sitcom's production company, signed its first international distribution deal with French broadcasting company Canal Plus.


    It started airing in France, Switzerland and French-speaking African countries in July.


    In that same month, the sitcom won two awards at the 2007 Roma Fiction Fest, an annual international television festival in Rome, Italy.


    Israeli television stations will also begin broadcasting the first season in English with Hebrew subtitles on October 23. Audiences will be able to watch in the West Bank and Gaza as well.


    Finland and the United Arab Emirates have also signed deals and will begin airing the first season in early 2008.


    Funny Muslims?


    Zarqa Nawaz, the show's director, hopes to correct the stereotype that Muslims are humourless.


    She told Al Jazeera: "This will be a great opportunity for people to see Muslims in normal context."


    A Muslim-born to Pakistani immigrants in Liverpool, England, who was raised in Toronto and moved to the Canadian prairie 10 years ago, Nawaz has loosely based the show on her own experience of adapting to life in a new setting.



    "People will come away with an understanding of a misrepresented group."

    Mary Darling, executive producer of the sitcom

    She explains that the show's title is a play on the popular Laura Ingalls Wilder novel Little House on the Prairie. This show is set in Mercy, population 14,000, on Canada's southern plains. Like the real town of Regina where Nawaz lives, Mercy's population consists mainly of white Christians.


    Mohammed al-Masry, president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, an independent Canadian NGO, was so impressed with the show that he sent a letter to everyone on the organisation's mailing list urging Canadian Muslims to tune in.


    "It's time for Muslims to laugh at themselves," he told Al Jazeera. "Muslims are behind blacks and Jews [in North America] in terms of selling humour.


    "I like some American shows, such as Seinfeld. But, you can't compare Little Mosque to Seinfeld because it doesn't have the same amount of resources."


    He added: "I've gotten good reports from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Little Mosque shows that Muslims have regular problems and can be silly."


    The first season ended with all the typical makings of controversial comedy: a battle of the sexes at the mosque, a new white convert causing friction in the community because she is more pious than her Muslim husband, problems with in-laws, interfaith dating with a sexy fireman, and the Muslims saving their town from financial ruin.


    'A step backward'


    But not all Muslims see the sitcom as a true representation of their community.


    Tarek Fatah, founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC), an organisation of secular Muslims based in Toronto, says: "The vast majority of Muslims in North America don't go to mosques."


    He said: "I believe there's an attempt by Islamic groups to sanitise what happens in mosques. We know that most mosques give political sermons."


    Fatah said he believes this series is "a step backward".


    Farzana Hassan, president of the MCC, says the sitcom portrays Muslims from a narrow narrative and is offended by the way non-Muslims are portrayed.


    She said: "I would have liked to have seen [the women in Little Mosque] not wear the hijab.


    "The bigotry of small-town white Canadians has been exaggerated."


    She would have preferred to see more Muslims appear in mainstream Canadian shows, instead of separately in their own series.


    Second season


    Darling says she is aware of criticism from some of Canada's secular Muslims, but says a mosque was chosen as a setting because the sitcom is based on the experiences of its creator, Nawaz, who is a practising Muslim.


    Darling says other people have criticised the show for using "hokey humour".


    But, as far as she is concerned, Little Mosque "entertains and informs at the same time ... and will help race relations" in Canada.

    The second season airs on October 3.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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