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Canada Chuckles at 'Little Mosque on the Prairie'

A new sitcom on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is getting attention around the world. Little Mosque on the Prairie deals with a group of Muslims living in a small prairie town in Canada.

The name may bring back memories of the long-running U.S. drama Little House on the Prairie, but that's where the comparison stops. This 30-minute comedy is more akin to British comedies than American ones. There is no laugh track, few obvious jokes, and the humor is rather gentle.

In a scene from the first episode, the mosque's new imam is arrested at the airport after someone listening to his conversation becomes concerned.

"If Dad thinks it's suicide, then so be it," a character says. "This is Allah's plan for me. I'm not throwing my life away. I'm moving to the prairies."

"To run a mosque?" his companion asks skeptically, quickly followed by this from a security guard:

"Step away from the bag — you're not going to paradise today."

The show's creator, Zarka Nawaz, says it's a pretty standard formula: the fish out of water. In this case, the fish is the mosque's new imam, a liberal man who quits his big-city law practice to take over the tiny mosque, which is in a rented church hall.

"Every artist writes from their own experience," Nawaz says. And she's Muslim.

According to Nawaz, the show's setting provides a rich vein of misunderstanding from which to mine its humor. The small-town people are, well, provincial. The town's tiny Muslim population seems a bit out of place, and it's a strange group to say the least.

In the second episode, one of the mosque's members tries to erect a barrier between men and women in the prayer hall, and the resulting dispute makes the Muslims and the town's non-Muslims look equally silly.

But the show has a definite subtext, although Nawaz denies it's intentional. Canadians love to laugh at their southern neighbors in the United States.

John Doyle, the TV critic for The Toronto Globe and Mail, says many viewers will be thinking of the U.S. as they chuckle.

"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," he notes.

Muslims in Canada watched the show with some anticipation but there were few vocal complaints. Some thought the show's portrayal of Muslims and Islam was insulting, but when pushed, most admitted that the portrayal of the non-Muslims in the show was just as insulting.

"I would expect that if you had this kind of comedy in a church or in a synagogue, you'd have a similar reaction from different parts of the community," says Walid Hejazi, a university professor and a Muslim. "But again, because of the image that Muslims have in the media, this particular show generates extra interest in how the community's going to react, in light of other things that have been in the media about Islam."

When the show was first announced, there were suggestions that CBC may be making itself vulnerable to the same sort of issues that arose when a Danish magazine published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.

The CBC has hired a consultant and worked with several imams to ensure there is nothing in the show Muslims might find offensive, and the network insists there is no risk of real controversy.

Yet they need look no further than Little Mosque on the Prairie to see how things sometimes spin out of control:

"Is this terrorist attack hotline?" a character asks. Then: "You want me to hold?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Morning Edition
Richard Reynolds