When it comes to creating 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. 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 the CBC.
But the series premiere last Tuesday attracted 2.1 million viewers, impressive in a country where an audience of one million is a runaway hit. The CBC has not had a show draw an audience of that size 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 town 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 cell phone 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 church parish hall to a mosque. “It’s a pilot project,” he says, leading the man to exclaim wide-eyed, “You’re training pilots?!” A bit hokey, perhaps. But light hearted moments like these among Muslims and non-Muslims have been few and far between in Canada of late.
Over the summer, 18 Muslim men were arrested in the Toronto area in connection with an alleged plot to attack several targets in southern Ontario. Their case continues to wind through the courts. In September, an inquiry cleared a Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, of terrorist accusations that saw him deported from the United States to Syria — where he says he was tortured — partly on intelligence from the Canadian authorities.
The show’s creator, Zarqa Nawaz, says she was not trying to bridge all of the cultural gaps, but said she hoped the programme 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 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 CBC has committed to eight episodes of the program, and is negotiating with the show’s producers for 13 more in the spring. But despite the initial success of Little Mosque on the Prairie the network is still proceeding with caution, having hired a consultant to flag anything in the scripts that could offend audiences.
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 humour to remedy these divisions just like any community,” said Mohamed Elmasry, an imam and president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.
The show has been criticised for treating too lightly the threat posed by radical Muslims and the potentially dangerous influence of radical imams on young Muslims. The newly-hired imam in “Little Mosque in the Prairie,” Amaar Rashid, is clean-shaven, wears tight jeans and has the “ravishing looks of a soap-opera star,” as a columnist in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente, put it.
“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,” the columnist wrote.
Syed Asad Dean, chairman of the Meadowvale Islamic Centre in Mississauga, a western suburb of Toronto, said portraying Muslims as moderate members of the mainstream could have a beneficial effect on young Muslims.
“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 recognise us and they actually made an investment to talk about us and our life in Canada.'”
The programme’s producers have spoken with television executives in the United States, Dubai, Israel, London, Germany and France, among others, with the first and second episodes having been sent to networks and stations that have expressed an interest.
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.