By Jamal Akabli
Rabat – Little Mosque on the Prairie, the Muslim Cosby Show, as it has been judiciously christened, has been praised, and dispraised as well, for its heretofore unheard-of capacity to generate and foster intercultural and inter-communal dialogue as well as for its audacity in transgressing common sense and in trespassing a land-mined territory that is likelier to prove provocative and unsettling, if not explosive, at the least of it. In the aftermath of the horrendous and horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center, no one in their right frame of mind would have contemplated producing a comedy, a “terroridy” as it were, about Muslims and non-Muslims as they go about their daily life, and yet none could have foretold the monumental success its debut would achieve.
Zarqa Nawaz, a Muslim of Pakistani origin, took on the challenge, a gamble so to speak, producing a groundbreaking six-season show that saw “over two million people tune in” when it debuted on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The show was later sold to and aired in over 83 countries. This situation comedy has been said to have had the impact that was intended of it, “tackling issues of diversity, race relations, religion and spirituality,” some of which will be explored in more depth in due course.
For all the appeal it appears to have gained, the sitcom aroused mixed reactions ranging from approbation and appreciation to deprecation, disapproval, and disaffection by Muslims and Christians alike. Such nonchalance and resistance corroborated healthy concerns raised earlier by the director. The creator of the much contested show admitted that “even the executives who made Little Mosque were worried when it went on air, about how ‘the community’ would react.” She went on to add that while some Muslims spoke ill of it, the bulk of “the Muslim community felt it was innocuous…funny,” and so it was, I believe. Her “own laugh-out-loud take on her everyday culture” inspired by her own experiences on the plains of Canada earned her disapproval, especially from those who deem their culture to be too good, too immune, to be criticized, those who stand arms akimbo doing nothing to change the status quo.
Undaunted, Nawaz, nonetheless, firmly maintains that as long as the Muslim community is underrepresented, misrepresentations will persist. Consequently, her role as an intellectual is to intervene to the best of her ability to address issues of concern to the Muslim community and to redress the situation as far as possible. The director has long realised that to divest themselves of the heavy trappings the media have tailored out for them, Muslims have to break what she calls this bubble of isolation/ghettoisation. “As a community,” Nawaz militantly says, “we’re realizing that rather than sit back and complain about our representation, we have to be proactive in creating our own image.” As for the charge that she is deriding and ridiculing her kin and kindred, Nawaz quips laconically but eloquently that she “would rather see a goofy, silly Muslim on film which is essentially harmless than a Muslim playing a competent wife abuser.”
For all the apparent success it commands, the show came under severe criticism for leaving out and eclipsing non-practicing Muslims, those to whom religion is of little consequence and others who are secular. Despite her attempt to showcase that different individuals each have their idiosyncratic behaviours, Nawaz, some skeptics would fervently argue, still communicates that Islam means one and the same thing for all of them, which is hardly true, as we shall see. Nawaz may be seeking to stand up to the common charge that all Muslims are homogeneous, only to wind up selling an image of a group whose entire raison d’être pirouettes on the mosque. Attachment to holy places of worship may be strong for some Muslims, especially when they feel estranged and need to feel that they belong somewhere.
There are others, however, to whom religion matters, but only to a lesser degree, and those to whom religion does not matter at all, despite being thought Muslims because of their origins. These latter categories, some would contend, are scanted and absented, which lands Nawaz in the very territory she sought to take off from. She too homogenises Muslims and prioritises religion to individuals for whom religion is not necessarily a priority. In the post-9/11 climate where Arabs, Africans and Asians came to be seen as the Muslim others, the enemies within, Nawaz seems only to have confirmed the widespread stereotype that conflates Arabs and Asians with Muslims. The only two Muslims of Canadian lineage are Sarah and Marlon, the first of whom professes to be a Muslim but hardly acts Muslim, while the latter is so carried away by his own narrow vision that he cannot fit in and ultimately falls into Christian hands, though he will not last for long.
Another error of taste Nawaz makes resides in the very binaristic bifurcation she falls prey to in portraying Canadians as either Christian or Muslim, thus polarising already bipolar relations by expelling and excluding others from this too narrow an either-or equation. This should not eclipse the appearance now and then of characters to whom religion is of little, if any, consequence, namely the people of Mercy or the gay couple.
However, I will argue against this line of thought and demonstrate that the characters in Little Mosque on the Prairie are bigger than life in that they represent the diversity Muslims in Canada, or rather Canadian Muslims, are marked out for and the adversities they face up to, thus de-homogenising the all-static view that envisions Canadian Muslims to be all identical. The homogenisation that holds Muslim to drink from the same fountain of blood has its basis in the fact that Muslims, having come under so much pressure, have “established new alliances and identified with one another more closely and purposefully than ever before.” In line with the principle of “reactive ethnicity which posits that, when people experience racism, they increase their identification with their ethnic group,” the assault on Muslims has resulted in their increased identifying with members of the same group, thus creating what Anderson labels “horizontal camaraderie.”
A mere glance at the characters suffices unto itself to clear Nawaz of the charge that she is guilty of collectivisation. Interestingly, the show is to be hailed and given credence for bringing together a constellation of miscellaneous Muslims of African lineage, Asian or even Arab descent into a salad bowl and sprinkling the admixture with a pinch or, more correctly, a touch of humour, the background of which is a mosque within a church. The diversity Nawaz highlights is in keeping with the fact that “Muslims in Canada more or less reflect the global profile of Muslims, and thus form a heterogeneous mosaic highly diversified in terms of ethnic, national and sectarian affiliations and degrees of religious conviction,” which sets Canada as a country apart.
The directorial choice to confine the scenes “to enclosed, repetitive places” such as the mosque, the coffee-shop, the mayor’s office and Hamoudi’s place is dictated by the parameters of the genre, the observation of which gives the sitcom its spatial unity, which in turn generates a feeling of familiarity and homeliness. These locations are peopled by a diverse but “continuing cast of characters in a succession of episodes” that adds to the viewer’s “sense of comfortable familiarity.” Nawaz could then see comedy and seize the humour in situations that would, if otherwise depicted, trigger more tears than laughter. Through the “mise-en-situation” of the ever-tragicomic lives of a bunch of individuals we empathise with in more ways than one, Nawaz creates polyphonies and foils for the audience to vicariously identify with, laugh with/at and, above all, bridge the gap with. Hers is an attempt to voyeuristically peep and peer into the private world of Muslim immigrants and Muslim Canadians as they strive under the loupe of a much bigger world that regards them with suspicion and suspects them of malice.
The mosque, as the title prefaces, will constitute the centerpiece of the sitcom episodes, the stage where the characters meet/collide. All the characters and events orbit around the mosque in an embodiment and enactment of Islamic ways of being and behaving. As such, the mosque attracts both extremes, the open-minded and receptive as well as the narrow-minded and chauvinistic on either side of the spectrum, i.e., Islam and Christianity. What lends the mosque its mystique is its very locale and locus, its dislocation. Surprisingly enough, the mosque happens to be located at the very heart of a church, the “Mercy Anglican Church,” on the prairies of Canada’s picturesque landscapes, foreshadowing much trouble to come. The quietude and tranquility of the village contrasts sharply with the hustle and bustle within the church-now-turned-mosque. Because of the Muslim presence, the church has been turned into a beehive teeming with life, giving the villagers a bone to pick and the viewer a pretext and a privilege to pry into the lives of these threatening, perhaps, or threatened intruders.
Unexpected as this may sound, this deterritorialisation or, in surgical terms, transplantation of a mosque onto a Christian body lends itself to multiple readings. It could be read as part of a directorial penchant to break our expectations and have us question and rethink our long-held taken-for-granted perception or, I should rather call it, misconception of things thought Muslim or Christian. In a reversal of situations we will witness more of as the series unfolds, boundaries are blurred, concepts redefined and clichés undermined. This “process of transculturation – both as social phenomenon and as aesthetic strategy” can take on various forms, representing not only “an aspect of postcolonial diasporic art…, but also of resistance, between the multiple distinctive cultures…in response to reductive mainstream perceptions.”
Here is the house of God/Allah, and instead of it being an exclusionary space — a no-fly zone — it is here remapped and transfigured into the very first all-inclusive contact zone where tolerance is preached and actually practiced. The divide between mosque and church is therefore redrawn to make it possible for a mosque to grow within the very precincts of a church and for the church to survive on contributions the mosque makes. This interdependence is very much behind the symbiosis Nawaz has tactfully made possible by bringing the two communities miniaturised under the same roof, just as they co-habit the same country unaware. This act of “welcoming of the other into one’s dwelling” and by extension into one’s place of worship contributes to the construction of subjectivity in which being and being together “is merely the space in which the subject establishes intimacy” with the Other.
The idea of a mosque within a parish hall is indicative of the difficulties Muslims are up against in “finding proper spaces for meeting and worship.” Establishing holy places of worship, as Yasir the contractor explains, always runs amiss “with opposition from residents of the neighborhood for which the building is proposed,” as Joe, the fear-monger, amply demonstrates. The reason why this is the case is that mosques are suspected of cultivating dogmatism, indoctrinating weak souls and harbouring terrorists. The transformation of these holy sanctuaries into “recruiting stations” and “military planning headquarters” accounts to a large extent for why Muslims find it so difficult to find appropriate “proper spaces for meeting and worship.” And so, Yasir has had to masquerade the mosque as a contracting company for him to be able to secure the rent. While this may work in the short run, it could eventually draw suspicions, as it does indeed, to his motives. His company bears a resemblance to bin Laden’s construction company, as Joe reminds us, which was used to cover up for Oussama’s money laundering and financial support for Al Qaeda. Only Yasir’s is a mosque he uses as an office to promote his business.
Later on in the series, Baber, the regressive Imam, is eager to relocate the mosque when the church is about to commit a sacrilege by reading out the matrimonial vows of a homosexual couple, a profanity Baber will not take lightly. It took Yasir a whole year of scheming to find a proper space to lease, and most probably Baber’s endeavours to move out are more likely than not to be dashed against the wall, as Amaar, the progressive Imam, makes crystal clear. Enraged at the gravity and depravity of the situation, Baber eagerly proceeds with his plans only to come full circle to the realisation that none would have Muslims as tenants.
As Baber utters his infuriating, insidious and venomous words of how the whole West colludes and conspires to deconvert Muslims by luring them out of the righteous path, concern grows that the church has been transformed into a recruiting center for extremists. In an outrageous comment revealing him to be a bigot reveling in his own bigotry, Baber lashes out at all idols, Canadian and American, urging the congregation to smash them. His contagious fury, which sounds like a declaration of war, only fuels hatred for the West and xenophobia for the rest actuating and reviving the prophetic claims Huntington pronounced earlier of an apocalyptic war between the so-called millennial rivals. This war, according to Huntington, is manifest in the resurgence of Islam and its “rejection of Western values.” The idols Baber seeks to destroy from inside a church carry and embody the values of freedom, competitiveness, success and so on that the West rests on. Only Huntington would prove an idiot were he to believe another idiot such as Baber, but many would and would react accordingly.
However, his sermon is scoffed at by Rayyan, a young Muslim with a brain. The question that poses itself forcibly at this point is why Muslims appoint as Imams reactionary people like Baber. Part of the answer, I daresay, is that now that the director has lived up to the common expectation that vilifies and demonises Muslims, now that the subterfuge is working its way, she goes on to counter the tide by bringing out into the fore the truth of the matter, creating an effect of comedic relief however transient it is. No sooner do the viewers misread the lines of the story than their misinterpretations catch fire. These conspiring Muslims have had to conceal their intents and purposes to lease a religious space of theirs for the simple reason that ownership is denied them on religious grounds. Such trespassing of boundaries carries within the seeds of trepidation lest they should be seen performing their religion in the open. With a slight of the hand, the victimisers become the victims, and the viewers find themselves compelled to refocus their dim “distorting lens” to see more clearly.
 Not only are Muslims divided into Sunni and Shiite groups, but Sunnis are further subdivided into four main subgroups. In fact, there are as many Islams as there are interpretations.
 Lori Peek, Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11, p. 143. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.
 Baljit Nagra, “‘Our Faith Was Also Hijacked by Those People’: Reclaiming Muslim Identity in Canada in a Post-9/11 Era”, p. 426. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies Vol. 37, No. 3, March 2011.
 In his Imagined Communities, Anderson explicates how people come to mentally construct a vision of their compatriots without ever meeting them. Beside the map, census and museums, moments of joy and grief all inform that vision.
 Saeed Rahnema, “Islam in diaspora and challenges to Multiculturalism”, p. 24. In Haideh Moghissi, ed., Muslim Diaspora: Gender, Culture and Identity. US and Canada: Routledge, 2006.
 Antonio Savorelli, Beyond Sitcom: New Directions in American Television Comedy, p. 23. USA: Mcfarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010.
 See Encyclopedia Britannica for more on sitcoms.
 Bernadette Casey, Neil Casey, Ben Calvert, Liam French and Justin Lewis, Television Studies: Key Concepts, p. 23. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
 In Canada as well as in other Western countries, it is only commonplace to blame immigrants for a number of social ills such as unemployment and insecurity. To see them occupying a church sounds the Islamophobic alarm that nothing is Islam-proof. The viewers might as well be deemed as intruders because they watch the private life stories of these individuals unfurl.
 Siobhán Shilton, “Transcultural Encounters in Contemporary Art: Gender, Genre and History”, p. 57. In Michelle Keown, David Murphy and James Procter, eds., Comparing Postcolonial Diasporas . UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
 Jane Hiddleston, understanding postcolonialism, p. 20. UK: Acumen, 2009.
 Jane I. Smith, Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens, p. 8. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
 Karim H. Karim, “Crescent Dawn in the Great White North: Muslim Participation in the Canadian Public Sphere”, p. 267. In Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, ed., Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
 Douglas E. Cowan, “Fearing Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Sociophobics and the Disincentive to Religious Diversity”, p. 70. In Lori G. Beaman and Peter Beyer, eds., Religion and Diversity in Canada. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008.
 Jane I. Smith, Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens, p. 8. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
 The “bin Laden empire” is one of the giants in Saudi Arabia. Its beginnings can be traced to Sheik Mohammed bin Laden, a Yemeni immigrant to Saudi Arabia. Much has been said about the work he did, but nothing can be verified. The story runs that, having gained the trust of King Abdul Aziz upon the completion of work on the royal palace, the bin Ladens were bestowed exclusive rights to all construction work on religious sites, presaging the establishment of a financial hub. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/who/family.html
 Hosted by Ben Mulroney, Canadian Idol is a reality TV show aired on CTV. The show seeks out to find the best young voice in the whole of Canada.
 Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, p.151. USA: Oxford University Press, 2002.
 Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order, p. 102. UK: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
 Simon Critchley, “Humour as Practically Enacted Theory, or, Why Critics Should Tell More Jokes”, p.18. In Humour, Work and Organisation, eds. Robert Westwood and Carl Rhodes. New York: Routledge, 2007.
 John Gray, “Global Utopias and Clashing Civilizations: Misunderstanding the Present”, p. 29. In George Ritzer and Zeynep Atalay, eds., Readings in Globalization: Key Concepts and Major Debates. Great Britain: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010.
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