Canadian sitcom places Muslims in the spotlight

TORONTO — The bearded imam in traditional robe is railing against pop-culture idols, warning Muslims to protect themselves from the evil influences of prime time.

“`American Idol,’ `Canadian Idol,’ I say all idols should be smashed,” Baber tells a small congregation sitting on the floor of a makeshift mosque. “`Desperate Housewives’? Why should they be desperate when they’re only performing their natural womanly duties?”

Rayyan, a gorgeous young woman in a headscarf, looks bemused then whispers to her mother, “Hey, did you tape last night’s episode?”

The scene is from the first episode of the CBC comedy “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” (It airs Jan. 9 in Canada. Only some Americans in border states will be able to view it.)

The producers hope the topical humor about Islam and Christianity — with a backdrop of bumbling buffoons and everyday cross-purposes — will be as funny as it is fresh.

“To me, this is not a political show. This is not about the Iraq war; it’s not about 9/11,” said the show’s creator, Zarqa Nawaz. “It’s entertainment.”

It may not be about 9/11, but it often feels like it. In the first episode, a handsome young Muslim man is being dragged by police from an airport line after he barks into his mobile phone: “If Dad thinks that’s suicide, so be it. This is Allah’s plan for me.”

He is talking about his decision to leave his father’s Toronto law firm and become the spiritual leader of the small Muslim community in the fictitious prairie town of Mercy.

Makeshift mosque

Another scene has a character named Joe stumbling upon the new makeshift mosque housed in the parish hall of an Anglican church, then rushing out to call the “terrorist attack hot line” when he sees the Muslims bowing to pray, “just like on CNN.”

When the liberal-minded Anglican priest later tells Joe there’s nothing “sinister” about his Muslim neighbor’s construction company, Joe responds with alarm: “Osama bin Laden ran a construction company too.”

Nawaz, a Canadian Muslim, said that while the classic sitcoms “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” dealt with bigotry and racism for the first time on U.S. television, their success was based on the hilarious delivery of those issues, not on preaching to viewers.

“If it humanizes Muslims, that’s great,” she said during a recent taping in a studio outside Toronto. “But we live and die by the ratings, and whether people find it funny.”

In another scene from the first episode, the Muslims are arguing about the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. The imam, Baber, insists Ramadan begins when the crescent of the new moon is observed with the eye, “just as the Prophet did.”

Fun in fasting?

Yasir, a Lebanese-Canadian who owns the construction company, suggests instead: “Why don’t we just log on to and let the starvation begin!”

His wife, Sarah, a local who converted to Islam for her husband, then offers: “Why don’t we just do what the Christians do, pick a month and just stick to it? I mean, what’s wrong with December? Shorter days for fasting and way, way better shopping.”

While Nawaz and the executive producers don’t want the show to be pegged as a Muslim comedy, they believe the time is right for TV to tackle the treatment of 800,000 Muslims in Canada and some 6 million in the United States since the terrorist attacks of 2001.

“It really is a show that focuses on relationships and families; it’s not about terrorism,” said executive producer Mary Darling. “But we’re not afraid of introducing those issues.”

“Since 9/11 what we see on the news nearly every day portrays Muslims in terms of conflict,” said Nawaz, the 39-year-old mother of four who dresses in jeans and sneakers, while covering her hair with a traditional hijab.

She moved from Toronto to the prairie town of Regina in Saskatchewan a decade ago when she married her husband. Much of the show reflects the conflict and humor she experienced in the more intimate and conservative mosque.

While some media have questioned whether the show might insult Islamic fundamentalists, Nawaz believes Muslims deserve more credit.

“This assumption in the media that Muslims are going to riot in the streets, freak out and get upset is ridiculous,” she said. “It’s just a comedy.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday January 2, 2007.
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