Depictions of Islam in North American media have rarely challenged stereotypes about Muslims. Consequently, scholars writing about the news or programs like 24 frequently frame their research in terms of “accuracy,” “truthfulness,” or “authenticity.” However, this frame tends to limit discussion to questions of what’s “authentic,” rather than pushing further by asking, for instance, how North American identity is negotiated in a globalizing world.
An approach that is likely to yield subtler insights is to ask who is being addressed and how. V.N. Vološinov (in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language) observes that every utterance is shaped by a speaker’s sense of his or her addressee. Where film and television are concerned, producers choose what to include as they create characters and plots based in part on what they think their viewers know. One reason stereotypes “work” is that they conform to (and reinforce) many viewers’ expectations.
What if producers saw their audience as Muslim North Americans? Me and the Mosque, a documentary by Zarqa Nawaz (creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie, discussed here and here), does exactly this. In it, Nawaz explores the influence of conservative imams on North American mosques, especially in the growing popularity of barriers separating men from women in prayer rooms. She addresses her viewers as members of the North American Muslim community, opening her narration with the observation, “Muslims always seem to be talking about injustices done to them by the outside world, but I rarely hear Muslims talking about the unfairness that exists within our own communities.” She effectively bypasses the questions that non-Muslims frequently pose (“Is Islam inherently oppressive to women?”). Instead, she presupposes that Islam is good, even if its specific practices are contested.
For non-Muslim viewers like me, watching Me and the Mosque feels a bit like being invited to eavesdrop on a really interesting conversation, but in a way that also involves me as a participant. What makes the conversation productive is that its premises differ from those I encounter in other programs. Thus the question I want to ask is, Can such a mode of address help non-Muslim viewers think beyond the stereotypes they’re used to? If so, how?