March 15, 2012
Believing, Belonging, and Laughing in Little Mosque on the Prairie
— Lauren E. Osborne
The Canadian sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie is running its sixth and final season. The show first aired on the CBC (Canada's national broadcasting network) in 2007, drawing record numbers of viewers for a domestically produced show. The setting is the fictional prairie town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, home to a Muslim community made up of individuals of diverse backgrounds, who represent archetypes one might find in any number of North American Muslim communities (although the sheer variety of backgrounds in one small town is surprising). The local mosque rents its space within the town's Anglican church. Muslims worship and live alongside their non-Muslim Canadian neighbors. Conflicts and misunderstandings arise but are promptly resolved, all in the spirit of lighthearted comedy.
The show makes a two-tiered argument. First, it depicts Muslims as people, and a diverse group of people at that, living their lives—going to work, interacting with neighbors, friends, and families. In this respect, Little Mosque is the first North American show of its kind. Secondly, it focuses on humorous situations involving a group of people that television media typically depicts as a threat, or at least as outsiders. The general basis for this humor is not new, in that it recalls African American sitcoms from the 1980s, most notably The Cosby Show, arguably one of the first of this kind.
Of course, the premise of The Cosby Show is drawn on ethnic lines, with the main characters and vast majority of the cast being African American. Muslims, on the other hand, are not an ethnically defined group; rather, the characterizations on Little Mosque demonstrate that they are a religiously defined community, diverse in any number of ways. Characters on Little Mosque are native-born Canadians and immigrants, of a wide range of racial backgrounds and degrees of religious observance.
The relatability of Little Mosque to Canadian Muslims and other (presumed) outsiders operates along the lines of being an outsider looking in, laughing at oneself and the situation of being an outsider. But it comes at the expense of the depiction of its characters experiencing and struggling with religious belief and doubt.
Humorous situations that are particular to Muslims in North America do arise; for example, "Swimming Upstream," an episode from the first season wherein Mercy's Muslim women find that the women's swimming instructor at the local pool is a gay man, then organize to find a female instructor to replace him. While it deals with an issue that is humorous but with potential for serious inquiry (can a gay man see a hijab-wearing Muslim woman without her hijab?), it skirts the fact that this problem arises from actual religious belief, which is ostensibly the defining premise of the show. This topic could be the site of a complex conflict that may not be resolvable within a 30 minute timeslot.
Similarly, The Cosby Show has been criticized for not addressing the issue of race. Although it was a sitcom, it did occasionally deal with serious issues (drug use in "Theo and the Joint" and "Close to Home," and teenage pregnancy) but none of these concerned race specifically. One executive producer of the show has been quoted as saying, "Bill depicted the Huxtables as an American family that happened to be black, rather than as an African-American family." This depiction defied the racist stereotypes of African Americans that had previously dominated popular television, so in this respect the show dealt with race fundamentally yet implicitly.
Both The Cosby Show and Little Mosque make statements about difference and belonging in North America—The Cosby Show about race, and Little Mosque about religion. In Little Mosque, however, religious differences provide the premise for many comedic situations. This is slightly different from The Cosby Show's treatment of race, which thoroughly avoids that issue that is at its core (that the all-American family can just happen to be black). The treatment of religion in Little Mosque, however, leaves the viewer wondering about the place of religious belief in the show, and in comedy more generally. In an interview with Katie Couric, star Zaib Shaikh describes the show as a "gentle" comedy: it is not sarcastic, never dark nor biting. Given that the storylines in Little Mosque do not address the topic of religious belief, despite the fact that religion is ostensibly at the root of the series, we might ask if this relationship is due to some kind of conflict between belief and the lighthearted variety of comedy of the North American sitcom. Can such a comedic television show depict or do justice to belief, or does the topic naturally resist comedy?
Tim Arango, "Before Obama, There Was Bill Cosby," The New York Times, November 7, 2008.
Zaib Shaikh, Interview by Katie Couric, CBS News, January 19, 2011.
Lauren E. Osborne is a PhD student in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School.