Little Mosque on the Prairie (LM) is one of the most popular series the CBC—Canadian Broadcasting Corporation—has aired in recent memory. Given embarrassing incidents like passing on Canadian Idol and losing the theme to Hockey Night in Canada, LM has been a redemption song. LM has captured attention nationally and internationally by offering something that could have only been made in—multicultural, liberal, socially conscious, diverse—Canada… or so it seems.
The Canadian press has been critical of LM, arguing that it’s opportunistic—“Muslim is the new gay,” writes Mark Steyn in Maclean’s Feb. 5/07 issue—and too gentle—“Too bad it wasn’t offensive… it might have been funny,” Neil Boyce writes at montreal.com. It’s true; if you compare LM to some US sitcoms it does look gentle and eager to please. But we could argue that it’s doing what the CBC is supposed to do: “be predominantly and distinctively Canadian,” “reflect Canada and its regions,” “actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression,” “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity,” and “reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada” (1991 Canadian Broadcasting Act).
While LM does something new by tackling the “issue” of the Muslim diasporic experience in rural Canada, it’s a traditional Canadian sitcom. The clip I chose, from the very beginning of season one, highlights the intra-community tensions on the show, as well as showcasing the tension between Mercy and Toronto. Although the tensions between the Muslim and non-Muslim Mercy residents are also an important feature of LM, they are somewhat less important than the former—serving primarily to showcase the ignorance and gentle bigotry of the locals.
Especially in the first season with the arrival of the new Imam—Amaar: upper-class, Torontonian, and a former lawyer—to the small town of Mercy, Saskatchewan (pop. 14 000), LM highlights a dual critique of Toronto—suggesting that “us” versus “them” means more then just racial/ethnic difference—and Islamophobia. The issue of region versus centre is “essential” Canadian sitcom fodder. That this is a little mosque on the prairie and not a (little) mosque on Danforth Ave. is significant; it creates unity and what we might call a context for assimilation in the Canadian vein. The diverse Muslim characters on LM (white coverts, observant African woman, young feminists who wear the hijab, traditional patriarchs, barefaced young Imams) create one of the basic heuristic conceits of the show: that the Muslim characters are as different from each other as they are from the (homogenous white) population of Mercy, and that everyone in the small town is the more the same than different in being from Mercy and not from Toronto.