Apr 2, 2012

Little Mosque On The Prairie: A Retrospective


UPDATE: AUGUST 9th 2013: Little Mosque Comes To The USA!

Thanks to a deal with Pivot TV, the wonderful series Little Mosque on the Prairie will be coming here to the States.  I only hope that the reception is as warm and kind as the show often was.  So far I've only seen a few negative people on twitter going on about it, and so hopefully it stays that way.  This is a fantastic show that should be viewed by everyone!

Click here to go to Pivot TV's website and find out where you can watch the show!

Original Piece Below
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Over the years many things have been labeled "ground breaking", yet few truly are when you get down to it.  Little Mosque on the Prairie, the brainchild of British-Canadian writer Zarqa Nawaz, I believe falls into that category.  Inspired by "Me and the Mosque", Nawaz' own documentary, Little Mosque attempted to do something that would seem to be an impossibility on it's face.  Change the perception of Muslims in the West. 

It's not secret that after 2001 there was a huge backlash against Muslims in my country, the United States.  It is a huge stain on our already blemished nation that in the aftermath of September 11th, there was a surge in attacks on Muslims both American and foreign born.

We often find ourselves tested by circumstances that we are thrust into, whether it's by our own doing or not.  And how we react to those circumstances, whether we rise above them or allow them to suck us down into the depths, reveals an enormous amount about what we are as a people. And that goes not just for America, but human beings as a whole. 

And in the aftermath of 2001 we failed.  We failed miserably and it is something that our nation will have to live with for the rest of time.  The fact that America allowed itself to be sucked down into the depths of our own inadequacies and fears, and to be consumed by hatred and loathing (both of self and of those who are perceived as different) will forever blacken the image of this would be great nation.

For all of America's positives, our reaction towards other cultures and groups of people has never been one of them.  One only need look back into history and see our treatment of African Americans, Native Americans, Women, Hispanics, the LGBT community, and pretty much any group of people that weren't white, to realize that America's treatment towards Muslims and Islam are not exactly something that we haven't had practice in.

                                                       MORE AFTER THE BREAK



There is a quote that I'm not sure where it comes from or who said it, however it fits with this situation, and that is that "What man does not understand, he fears; and what he fears, he tends to destroy.".  And sadly that is what tact a lot of people take when faced with things and people they do not understand.

For a lot of people it seems, the only interaction with anything relating to Muslims is watching a terrorism themed movie, or the 24 hour news cycle which tells us that Muslims are bad and they are blowing shit up.  And that's really it.  The only Muslims they see are negative portrayals, and so when they hear bad things about them, they tend to believe it applies to ALL Muslims.  Because it's all they know.  It's all they've ever known.

Just like if you've only ever seen movies and TV shows of African Americans as junkies and prostitutes and drug dealer and gang bangers, and then suddenly you're having to interact with them, the mind goes to some bad places and you just assume that they are all like that.  That's also helped out by the 24 hour news cycles that often highlight negativity when it comes to African Americans but doesn't always highlight the positive.  Because where's the story in THAT?

It seems that when it comes to Muslims in this country there is a real problem.  In how we view them, in how we react to them, in all facets.  Especially since 2001, it seems that when you say the word "Muslim" it immediately conjures up negative things in a lot of people's minds.  They think terrorism, they think honor killings, they think every negative thing they've had crammed down their throat by the media and those in power for the last 11 years.

And that shit sticks.   And it causes people to be scared, and when people are scared they sometimes do scary things.  Such as throw bombs into Mosques, or attack innocent Muslims.  Because one Muslim is just like all Muslims, right?   They must all know each other.  They're probably related, right?  Right?


 

And as a result of that overwhelming fear mongering we've received from those such as Rep. Peter King from New York, who started hearings on his bigoted views on what he perceives to be the dangers of Muslims in this country, it's created this sort of society in which we are embracing our worst selves.  We're accepting torture now because we think it'll work much better than anything else.  I mean, Jack Bauer got some guy to talk in a few minutes, and saved hundreds if not thousands of lives.  So what, if we violate people's rights and our own morals and values?  The ends justify the means, right?  Right?

And as a result we see more TV shows and movies that embrace this.  We've accepted being labeled a Muslim as a "slur" to throw at people who we don't like or agree with.  The Republicans and Tea Party label the President of the United States a "Muslim" because his father was Muslim.  Despite President Obama's repeated declaration that he is Christian, they still throw that label at him, in essence agreeing with the bigoted notion that being labeled a Muslim is the absolute worst thing you can be called.

And that is why when I first heard of Little Mosque on the Prairie, I didn't know initially that it was a Canadian production.  I heard the name and thought that it was a crass exploitative reality show or something.  I heard the title, which was a clever play on the popular Laura Ingalls Wilder series and books, and dismissed it as something that was not something I would want to see.

Then I kept hearing about it.  And around the second season I finally gave in and went looking for it.  I bought the first season off of Amazon's Canadian page, and watched it and was really surprised.  It was unlike anything I'd really seen before.

A mere six years after 9/11, this quaint little show debuted featuring a Muslim community in the fictional town of Mercy, Saskatchewan trying to co-exist with a cautious Canadian -- mostly white, community.

And what could have been, in the wrong hands, a horrible exploitative venture, turned out to be something so needed and so wonderful.   It did something that no other show was doing (or has really done to extended success) and that is to illustrate that Muslims are just like everyone else. They go to a place of worship just like many of us, they go to restaurants just like us, they read and watch tv and eat just like us, with subtle differences throughout but for the most part, they're just people.

 

I remember growing up and when I was in grade school I was with my mom and dad in the grocery store, and we were going down one of the aisles and saw my teacher with a shopping cart.   And that just blew my mind.  As a kid I never even imagined that my teacher had another life other than school.  The only time I saw her was in class.

So I had it in my mind that my teachers all lived at the school and ate in the cafeteria.   So to see them out in the world and shopping at the same place I did hammered home a bit that the teachers were just like me.

That may seem strange, but as a six or seven year old that was crazy and mindblowing.

I think it's the same with many people when it comes to those of another faith.  When you are not around someone in a personal setting, and you only see a specific story relating to them, whether you have been raised having never seen an African American, and all you see all day on TV is black people being locked up for drug crimes, you may think that is representative of all black people, despite the stats not bearing that out.

And if you have never been around anyone who is Muslim, you may think that they are all uptight and serious and dangerous, because you have been glued to the 24 hour news networks since September of 2001.

So watching Little Mosque it's kind of incredible to see that a show like this can not only get on the air in this day and age, but to survive for six seasons.   That's amazing no matter how you look at it.

Last summer Katie Couric made mention of the sad state of affairs that was the attitudes towards Muslims in this country and suggested that there should be a "Muslim Cosby Show", referring to the Bill Cosby television series that was credited with knocking down a lot of stereotypes and negative feelings that a lot of people had about African Americans.  Clearly it didn't do away with racism or anything, but it clearly had an affect.

And I laughed when I read that, not that it wasn't a good idea, but that there's already a show that fits that, and it's just over the border into Canada.   Now I've posted before on the idea of whether or not that show could ever work here in the United States, and I say that there's no way possible.  The reason is that this nation has too many people in power, too many loud people in positions of influence that would never allow that to succeed.

Sugith Varughese, who portrayed Feisel, the sidekick for five years to Baber Siddiqui (portrayed by Manoj Sood) had a brilliant point on twitter recently, when he spoke to a group of people at the University of Minnesota's Liberal Arts, where he was receiving an Alumnus of Notable Achievement and was asked why a brilliant and funny award winning show such as Little Mosque on the Prairie, which is featured in 63 countries, was not available in the USA.  He said there were two things stopping the show from coming here.  Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.

Those two entities are extremely powerful and influential on the right wing side and I can't imagine that a positive portrayal of Muslims and Islam would ever go over well here.  Then you have those like Peter King, or Glenn Beck or Michelle Malkin or Ann Coulter, I mean the mind swirls at how much of a fantasy that would be for them.

Perhaps I'm just too pessimistic though.  The show has had an extremely positive impact on how Muslims are perceived.  I asked Varughese his thoughts on the show that he had called home for the previous five seasons (he was not in the sixth and final season that just finished up Monday night), and he had a great point about it all.  This is what his response was to my question of how he felt Little Mosque had impacted how people viewed Muslims and Islam:

I only did 17 episodes of the show, but each one taught me something interesting and unexpected about Islam and Muslims.  If it did that to me--who is not Muslim--then how could it not do that to the non-Muslim viewers of the show?  And what that means is that the "otherness" of Islam to non-Muslims is reduced by recognition.  

It's much like the impact of Jewishness and Jewish culture in mainstream Hollywood and Broadway.  The awareness of Jewish culture is exponentially higher - we've all seen everything from Fiddler on the Roof to Schindler's List - than the percentage of the population who are Jewish.  

And their foibles and dreams became universal so that you don't need to be Jewish to see Fiddler on the Roof and be moved.  Mosque MUST have done that for the non-Muslim audience, since it did that to me a non-Muslim cast member.  A little bit of otherness was chipped away.

And I think that's a brilliantly expressed point of view.  We can have our perceptions changed by the most unlikely sources.   Whether it's a chance encounter with a stranger who perhaps illuminated something inside you, or it's a book you read, or an interview you caught with someone you thought you would disagree with but found yourself agreeing with, or even a humble comedy show set in the small town of Mercy, Saskatchewan that forces you to look inside yourself and question those prejudices that you've allowed to dwell within.

Perhaps this show could make it here.   I hold out hope, but I've stood by my desire to not see the show "remade" for American audiences, because I think there's too many opportunities to lose what is so beloved about the show.  The little quirks in it, the idiosyncrasies that allowed so many people to fall in love with the characters.   Some we've loved from the start, others we despised and then grew to begrudgingly accept.

I think this show is a situation where the cast was a big part of this and  I'm not sure if that can be recaptured again and still have the spirit and the vibrancy of what we have seen of Little Mosque over the years.

 

The show has handled important issues dealing with faith and community in a respectful and humorous way, never beating you over the head with a message, but gently pushing you to perhaps reevaluate how you look at things and people for that matter.   Issues such as young Muslim women wearing Hijab which dovetails into the idea of a very conservative father raising a more liberal minded daughter.

It was Nawaz' intent to create a show that challenged the status quo as to how Imams are typically chosen.   When talking about this aspect to flip the typical idea of bringing an Imam from overseas to preside over the Mosque in Canada, she said "It's very unusual, because usually the Imam is imported from overseas and there's often a cultural disconnect. I thought it would be interesting to have an imam with Canadian cultural sensibilities having to deal with the immigrant men for a change."

And in the show Amaar has had to battle not only against the more conservative figures such as former Imam Baber Siddiqi as well as many of the townsfolk who are not sure exactly what to think about their new neighbors.

It also fostered discussions on inter-faith alliances as Amaar and the other Muslims could not find a single person in town who would rent them space for their Mosque.  At wits end, they ended up being saved by the friendly and open minded Reverend Magee who allowed them to rent the space in the back of the church for their Mosque.

Then later when Magee left the show, they introduced Canadian actor Brandon Firla as the widely reviled (by this writer included) Reverend Thorne.   Thorne was the antithesis to Magee, in that he was a hateful and spiteful man who insults the many people of his faith by trying to denigrate, belittle and turn people against, the Muslims and their faith.  He constantly tried to spark dissent among the townsfolk to get them kicked out of the church.

Many fans did not like him and I agreed and voiced my concern on their facebook page where others were discussing this as well.  I felt that it was an amazing opportunity to introduce a discussion of interfaith alliances and how sadly there are many in the Christian church and Catholic church who are not as openly accepting as Rev. Magee was.

And I thought this could lead to an amazing and incredible storyline, however my issue was that for those first couple years (for the most part) Thorne was always the one who would come out on top.  Those he pitted against the Muslims almost always took his word for it as he abused his power, and the Muslims always basically turned the other cheek.

In fact there were only two moments in that time that Thorne did not end up with the upper hand that I recall and that was during the "Handle with Care" episode (my personal favorite of the series) that had him shown up and exposed to the visiting Father Shephard, and during a charity boxing match between Thorne and Amaar, when Amaar knocked Thorne out.  But even in that last one, Thorne manipulated the people and had a neckbrace acting more injured than he was, casting more anger and distrust onto the Muslims.

However he did get his come uppance at the end when the visiting Bishop essentially let Thorne know what he was going to be in Mercy to stay, and Thorne realized that he'd have to make good with everyone.  And once he did he found that once he got to know them, he actually liked them, being temporary roommate with Amaar, and being a close friend and games player with Baber in this final season.   It's been a very welcome change to see Firla's character transformation and it makes the show a lot more fun then the way it was in the beginning.   Watching his character, designed that way on purpose of course, made it so infuriating because as a Christian I despise those who abuse their authority as a man of God, to further bigotry and racism.

Fans of the show have come a long way with these characters, and not just with Rev. Thorne.  It's been six years since Amaar (Zaib Shaikh) left his law practice to seek a higher calling, leading the small town Mosque.  He's met new people, fallen in love, watched his love, Rayaan (Sitara Hewitt), almost get married to someone else, and then have that second chance and take advantage of it.   We've seen characters come and characters go, but that charm of Mercy has remained.

Characters like Fred Tupper, (Neil Crone) the Rush Limbaugh-esque talk show host who is always stirring up troubles, yet still harbored an unspoken love of Fatima (Arlene Duncan) , the often intimidating matron of the diner which bears her name, that everyone eats at.

I would like to send a thank you to creator Zarqa Nawaz and all the wonderful beautiful characters of Mercy over  the years whether it's Aamar, Rayaan, Fred, Fatima, Nate, Sarah, Yasir, Rev. Magee, Layla, Baber, Yusuf, Feisel, Mayor Ann, Rev. Thorne, even the delivery guy that delivered three Jesus statues in a week back in Season 4 and the late Mantee Murphy who played Father Shephard, and many many others, the fans of the show thank you very much for six long years (which seems way too short now that I think about it).

To everyone involved in the show, I say  Shukran

Below you can watch a cast and crew interview with George Strombolopolous' show The Hour.


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