Shshsh - don't laugh! We're Muslims!!
I received the article "Little Masquerade on the Prairie" by Tarek Fatah and Farzana Hassan of the MCC, which was published in The Toronto SUN in my email.
The article sharply criticised the show "Little Mosque on the Prairie" aired by CBC. The criticism ranged from not being funny, to being shallow, to painting a false picture of the Muslim community in Canada and that it does not reflect the diversity of Canada's Muslim society.
For me the criticism that the show focuses "singularly on the most conservative segments of the Muslim community" and that it shows "conservative Muslims vs. ultra-conservative Muslims" really made me laugh, for I do not agree with this assessment at all. It is hardly conservative when a young Muslim woman sits out there at night on the steps (even if they are the steps of a mosque) talking to a young man (even if he is an imam) without a chaperone / mehrem (a male relative). It is definitely not ultra-conservative to show a Muslim wife being "disobedient" to her husband and withdrawing marital relations until a conflict is solved.
Strangely enough on another, more traditional, Muslim mailing list, the equally harsh criticism against the show was because it portrays too many progressive Muslims, showed a husband kissing his unveiled wife in public, presented unorthodox verbal exchanges and discussions thereby encouraging women to speak up against and defy their fathers and husbands. Furthermore, it accused the show of reducing Muslims to sad caricatures and many a time the dialogue bordering on blasphemy. I guess that nobody can please everybody and it all boils down to one’s sense of humour and more so to one’s definition of words such as progressive, orthodox and conservative.
I on my part found the four episodes to be a breath of fresh air, showing that Muslims can indeed laugh about themselves and do possess a sense of humour. I watched them all on YouTube.
The insider jokes might sometimes go above the head of a lot of viewers who do not have sufficient information about Islam, like for example one of the female characters saying something to the effect that this or that can be found in Sura 115 of the Qur'an, which obviously does not exist, since the Qur'an only has 114 Suras or the play on words calling it Halal-oween.
Personally I find the accusation that the script-writer is playing "a deft hand in attempting to sanitize what really goes on in the typical Canadian mosque" namely the "hijacking of Islam, by politicized clerics affiliated with Saudi Arabia or Iran", to be rather ludicrous and if anything at all I think that the humour in it was missed. The conservative character "Baber" is not really representative of the kind of clerics affiliated with the virulent string of Wahabi Islam, but rather an elderly family man who is desperately trying to control his nuclear family, and perhaps by extension the small Muslim community in that little town. He is portrayed in such a way that his attempts of control – even his discussions with the new and much younger imam about issues such as women praying in the same open space like the men or having an open day at the mosque – end up being exposed as pathetic and laughable.
As an example in episode 4, he started off being very much opposed to celebrating Halloween on the grounds that it is un-Islamic and for witches and by being totally against his children participating in any of the events associated with it, like trick & treat. He ended up having to go as a Muslim escort for his teenage daughter and enjoying himself even more than his children. I for one, found myself feeling sorry for him at times. Despite his apparent conservatism, he does, like any other doting father, have a soft spot for his daughter and indeed even repeatedly goes against his own traditional beliefs when it comes to her.
Muslim lives, especially in non-Muslim countries, do indeed not revolve around mosques, but for crying out loud, this is a comedy not a documentary or a reality show. And ideally the mosque should provide a lot more services to a community than only providing prayer space or room for Friday sermons. The New York Times portrayed a progressive imam, Mr. Shata, who said that he wishes to return the function of a mosque and its imam to what it used to be, by providing a space for interactions and other services. He for one runs some sort of a Muslim dating service from his mosque and chaperones prospective brides and grooms. He lectures at the mosque, settles disputes, makes house-calls to his community members whispering the call to prayer in the ears of newborn babies and “spends hours listening to women’s worries and confessions, their intimate secrets and frank questions about everything from menstruation to infidelity.”
The show does attempt to show some of the good - if not ideal - sides, like the discussions between the various community members regarding issues of conflict, presenting various opinions ranging from conservative to progressive. It also shows the "ideal" relationship, that should be, between the imam and the small town's priest, where their respective religions do not stand in the way of helping one another out, even if only by listening and offering a shoulder or a cup of tea and thereby co-existing friendly and peacefully. In some ways it also touches upon some of the complicated matters that could lead to convoluted fiqh questions, like for example if a man was gay, does that still necessitate a woman to cover her hair in his presence, despite the fact that it will in no way make any difference to him at all?
The cherry on top of this article was the statement: "Indeed all of the depictions point to an Islamist agenda that seeks to justify inequities that pervade Muslim communities under the pretext of progress."
Oh please! To imply that a comedy show has a political objective and some hidden agenda, predictably using the catchphrase of Islamist for emphasis, is really a bit too much and for me only shows seeing all sort of 'comical' conspiracies where none exist. A sense of humour is a very personal thing. What people choose to find funny or not is a personal choice, but if someone fails to see through the show to see it as a comedy, as is intended, then I must wonder about a possible own hidden agenda.
I am happy I watched the four episodes aired so far and I will be watching the next ones to come, provided they are uploaded somewhere like the previous ones. Personally I think that Zarqa Nawaz has managed to create a show that is both entertaining and also helpful in removing the fear of the unknown, those Muslims, who in a lot of other places, especially after 9/11 and in too many Hollywood movies are all lumped together and depicted as uncultured, ignorant brutes, terrorists, fanatics or worse.
A recent poll measuring the level of "Islamophobia" in each nation reported Canadians to be least prejudice against Muslims. Only 6.5% of the two thousand Canadians surveyed, said they wouldn’t like to have a Muslim neighbour. Perhaps it is shows like “Little Mosque on the Prairie” that help in removing deep-seated prejudices and show that at the end of the day Muslims are as human as everyone else, fighting their own demons of temptations and misunderstandings and rigid interpretations and long ingrained traditions, all that while trying to find a middle ground between keeping and practicing their faith and fitting in and making a new home in a country of their choice.
And if someone would make a "Little Gurdwara on the East Coast" or a "Little Mandir on the Oil Sands", I would most probably like to watch them as well, as I have no clue about what Sikhs or Hindus might or might not find funny or how being in the temples could be shown in a way that breaks the ice and removes prejudices.
In the New York Times article, Mr. Shata said: "The surprise for me was that the qualities I thought would not make a good sheik — simplicity and humour and being close to people — those are the most important qualities. People love those who smile and laugh. They need someone who lives among them and knows their pain."
Zarqa Nawaz, thank you for making me laugh!