A Canadian TV comedy series, about Moslems settling in a farm-region town, shows that earnest lectures are not the only way to make people welcome healthy cross-cultural contact.
Lights go dark on 'Mosque', but its message still inspires
When the Canadian sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie goes off the air after six seasons today, it will be remembered not only as one of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's top-rated shows, but also as a reminder of how religious and cultural diversity sustains western-Muslim co-existence.
Ever since its debut on CBC in January 2007, Mosque, as it's known, has done more for North American Muslim and non-Muslim relations than any conference or summit could have done.
A brainchild of Zarqa Nawaz, a Canadian Muslim of Pakistani origin, the show depicts Muslim-Christian relations in the fictional Canadian prairie town of Mercy. Over the sitcom's 91 episodes, Muslim community members were presented in daily formal and informal encounters with other town residents. Their interactions were generally friendly. But when things got out of control, morality and rationality helped return life to normal.
The show, in fact, was more a celebration of cultural diversity and religious differences than an affirmation of a clash-of-civilisation determinism. In all scenes and conversations, I could not miss out on the show's verbal and non-verbal suggestions that no matter how different we are, our shared human values and sentiments are bound to bring us closer together.
Throughout the sitcom, you see characters humorously talking and arguing about dividing issues into religious and cultural traditions; but by the end, they sound incredibly benign when compared to their counterparts in similar culturally inspired shows in Europe and North America.
When Mosque first aired in early 2007, post-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiment was still running high in North America. Yet the show surprisingly turned into a high-rating bonanza for CBC, garnering over two million viewers in its early years.
One reason for that success might have been the fact that the fictional Mercy experience was presented as totally Canadian. The stereotype of a Muslim immigrant as an alien who should be subjected to different rules had no place in the show. This concept complimented Canada's policies that see cultural diversity as an opportunity for advancing social peace and development.
Mosque was instructive for educators as well. University professors in North America used the show as a compelling example of how television could promote cultural understanding. The show's well-thought out handling of diversity, race relations, religion, spirituality, integration and acceptance provided educators with useful ideas for enriching classroom discussions and curricular development.
As noted by the show's executive producer, Mary Darling, sitcoms foster our sense of empathy and make us learn more while we are laughing. Mosque's satirical outlook suggested that we Muslims do have a sense of humour, and are willing to share it with others from different cultures.
Mosque's popularity travelled far beyond Canada with its airing in over 80 countries around the world. Perhaps part of the show's strength was its cultural and ethnic sensitivities, attributes it shared with the hugely popular American sitcom, The Cosby Show, about an affluent African-American family in New York City, which aired in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Mosque also managed to capture the media spotlight from major American media giants like CBS, PBS, CNN and The New York Times.
But there was an unfortunate side to this spotlight. A few months ago, the closest Muslim-inspired production in America, All-American Muslim, found itself embroiled in a heated controversy over allegations of promoting Islamic radicalism. The discontinuation of All-American Muslim at a time when Mosque was riding the airwaves suggested that unlike Canada, America is still unprepared to embrace television of this nature.
During its six seasons, Mosque triggered many comments from people with wide-ranging backgrounds. I have come across a huge number of complaints from both Muslims and non-Muslims who thought the show was misrepresenting Islam or promoting a deceptive image of Muslims as civilised and peaceful. But what counts here is that Mosque has left all of us, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, a promise of peace and harmony.
In a global public sphere buzzing with agitation, it was nice to be entertained by something else.
Muhammad Ayish is a former professor of communication at the University of Sharjah who is currently a media researcher and commentator based in Canada