Little Mosque On The Prairie


Margaret Wente

Globe and Mail, Tuesday January 9, 2007

Imams are so cute! If you doubt it, just tune in to CBC's daring new sitcom, Little Mosque on the Prairie. The star of tonight's first episode is a hunky young spiritual leader named Amaar, who has the ravishing looks of a soap-opera star. He's modern too. No robes or scary beards for him. This imam is progressive. He wears nice-fitting jeans, speaks colloquial English, and looks like a corporate lawyer from Toronto. In fact that's what he was -- until he gave it all up for Allah. Now he's been hired by a little mosque in Saskatchewan. Naturally, culture shock ensues, especially when he finds he can't get a non-fat cappuccino in the local diner.

Little Mosque is the most-hyped new CBC show in years, though not exactly the most true to life. Like all CBC shows, it has a mandate to instruct and uplift. Here is the moral lesson: Muslims are people too! And guess what! They're harmless!

Well, I won't take issue with that. But, if there's an imam on Earth who resembles this one, I will convert to Islam, don the veil, and catch the next plane to Mecca.

Little Mosque is a show only the CBC could make. It is so risk-averse, so painfully correct, it makes your teeth ache. No sacred cows were gored, or even scratched, in the making of this show. The old-fashioned conservative imam (who's being replaced by the Hunk) is a harmless pile of laughs. The goofy handyman who calls the terror hotline after thinking he's overheard a bomb plot is that stock character, the village idiot. The redneck radio host (who addresses the new imam as "Johnny Jihad") is really so good-hearted underneath that you just know he'll eventually come around. The other prediction I will make is that all serious issues -- i.e., all the interesting ones -- will be religiously avoided.

Little Mosque has drawn favourable interest from around the globe for its novelty and alleged audacity. This interest reflects a few stereotypes about Canada. We're the place where multiculturalism works; the land of progress and tolerance, where nobody gets excited (except, periodically, the French) and everybody gets along. We even have gay marriage. So why not funny Muslims too?

Little Mosque fits squarely into the CBC's mission of building mutual understanding between all Canadians. It is in the same tradition that brought us The Dead Dog Cafe, an excruciating radio comedy that featured wisecracking Indians who poke fun at each other and at the dopey white people who stereotype them. Along the way it drops in little nuggets about Indian life, just as Little Mosque earnestly works in nuggets about Islam (how do they figure out when Ramadan starts, anyway?) The truest note in the show is a poignant one. The Anglican minister explains he rented church property to the mosque because he needs the money. "Come to my sermon," he says. "I'm lucky if I can fill the first two rows."

The CBC has made a big deal of how brave it is. "Just doing the series is a risk in itself, but one the public broadcaster should take on if we're to help communicate the authenticity of living in Canada," explains programming guru, Kirstine Layfield. But not that brave. To make sure there is no unforeseen offence, an independent Muslim consultant is on hand to vet it.

In fact, the only possible offence in this show is to the intelligence. Its running gag is that most Canadians see terrorists under every bed. Frankly, most Canadians (even in small towns) are not so dim. And it is a slur to pretend they are.

So what would make this show more true to living in Canada? Regrettably, the cute imam would have to go. The redneck radio host would be shut down by the CRTC, and the townsfolk, instead of reacting to the mosque with fear and loathing, would invite everyone in it to join an interfaith group. Instead of calling the terror hotline, the village idiot would chuck a rock through the mosque's window. A Muslim from Egypt would be tossed into jail indefinitely on secret evidence. The convert to Islam (here played by Sheila McCarthy who only wears her head scarf in the mosque) would be dressed in black from head to foot. And the Muslim versions of Archie Bunker and Meathead would have a hilariously incorrect debate over the existence of that pesky state of Israel.

Now that's a show I'd really like to see.