In a story that has garnered a lot of attention, CBS News anchor Katie Couric recently called for a Muslim version of the “Cosby Show” in order to combat what she sees is American Islamaphobia. It seems Canada already has Couric’s dream show.
Every Monday night at 8:30, Canadians can tune into CBC Television’s sitcom “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” The show is wildly popular — enough so that it’s currently on its fifth season. The audience watches as a new imam and his mosque try to assimilate into the predominately Anglican town of Mercy. Each episode is rife with jokes about stereotypes because, as the show’s website explains, assimilation “isn’t as easy as they thought.”
Take the first episode of the series, for example, which features a Christian church member calling the “terrorist hotline” on the local Muslims and the new imam being arrested at the airport for a suspect phone conversation:
“I thought it would be interesting to do a series about what life is like in a mosque in a small community,” the show’s creator Zarqa Nawaz told the BBC in 2007. She says the inspiration for the show came from her own experiences as a Muslim woman who moved to Canada to work in a Mosque. That has apparently produced a wealth of material. Back in 2007, CBC Director of Network Programming Kirstine Layfield defended that material and the jokes about racial profiling and terrorism to the BBC.
“It is daring in the sense that it’s bringing it out again and discussing it in kind of an honest but funny way,” she said.
But not everyone is laughing with the Muslim sitcom.
“Little Mosque on the Prairie tries to sell itself as ‘Muslim Lite,’” writes Kidist Paulos Asrat in a 2008 American Thinker article. “But some Muslim commentators have denounced the shows premises, from the strong presence of women (“The fact that the women were sitting so close to the men is an abomination”, writes one blog commenter), to the non-Muslims caste in Muslim roles.”
According to Asrat, the episodes are laced with jabs at the dominant culture and traditions. He explains:
In an episode on a discussion for a New Year’s Eve party, Amaar, the unconventional Imam (he’s young, has no beard and speaks with a clear Canadian accent, unlike those “terrorist” Imams) says “New Year’s Eve isn’t really a big Islamic holiday”, and “Actually, in the Islamic calendar there is no last day of December”. His invitee responds, “There you go, it will be like [the New Year's Eve party] never happened” to accommodate Amaar’s tacit disapproval of the holiday. So much for the very Canadian sounding Amaar. In his telling classification, holidays are either part of Islam or not. Muslims’ celebrations are so intricately linked with their religion, that even non-religious, secular holidays such as New Year’s are not acceptable.
“Such anti-Western remarks are peppered throughout the program,” he says. “And despite their jovial, light-hearted air, the jokes are ultimately on the whites and non-Muslims of the community.”
NPR picked up on that slightly in 2007 when it covered the sitcom. It made sure to point out that many of the jabs are actually meant to mock America.
“But the show has a definite subtext, although Nawaz denies it’s intentional,” NPR reported. “Canadians love to laugh at their southern neighbors in the United States.”
The news outlet goes on to quote John Doyle, a TV critic for The Toronto Globe and Mail: “The kind of redneck attitudes from some of the locals in the small town toward the Muslims is very much reflective of an American suspicion of Muslims and not a Canadian suspicion.”
Katie Couric would probably chuckle and nod.