How Canada's Little Mosque on the Prairie is aiming for our souls

Every young girl's library should include Little House on the Prairie. The quasi-autobiographical adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a plucky girl, living with her pioneer farming family in the middle of the great prairies of the US, has also been transformed into a television series which is still on reruns three decades later.

Despite its somewhat misty-eyed hallmark stamp, the television series screens a myriad of  conflicts and unexpected challenges this little family faces and the often heroic and dignified ways in which they try to overcome adversity. Nearby families help out, while some are more antagonistic than others. Villains come and go, accosted and exposed by the small community of tough men determined to protect their families. Tragedies hit, and are dealt with in stoic, quiet dignity. It is an endearing, morality-filled television series.

Fast forward some thirty years and we get what appears like a spin-off show, Little Mosque on the Prairie. But its  only commonality with  the original Little House on the Prairie are four words in the title, and the semi-autobiographical episodes of show's creator Zarqa Nawaz. Even the mosque's town, Mercy, is fictional, unlike all the real places that Laura wrote about. The series' storylines resemble many of the sitcoms airing on current TV channels, with short, truncated dialogues, flat jokes and blithely juvenile feel-good endings.

Little Mosque on the Prairie tries to sell itself as "Muslim Lite". But some Muslim commentators have denounced the shows premises, from the strong presence of women ("The fact that the women were sitting so close to the men is an abomination", writes one blog commenter), to the non-Muslims caste in Muslim roles. One of the first episodes depicting an airport security check of a clearly foreign looking character - the soon-to-be Imam Amaar - talking on his cell phone was denounced by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as too discriminatory against Muslims. Still, whatever the initial glitches, the show has survived three seasons so far on Canada's CBC television station. It is also being aired in over sixty countries, including in Israel, the West Bank Turkey, Finland and France. Twentieth Century Fox Television has picked up the rights to the show to develop a story-line more accessible to the American public.

The most striking thing about the show is its name, which it clearly borrows from Laura Ingalls' book and the 1970s show. Less subtle, but equally significant, is the credit logo that is the exact replica of the 70s series. Is it that Muslim designers and producers are so bereft of imagination that they have to "borrow" from the original? The answer is more complex than that.

Just like the "Muslim Lite" sitcom version the producers settled on, the agenda of Little Mosque on the Prairie is to introduce, as unobtrusively as possible, the Muslim presence to the Canadian public. By borrowing well-recognized and often beloved Canadian symbols to advance their show, Muslims can be portrayed as being  just like any other Canadian -- in fact they are now the new pioneers of the vast, empty prairies, building their societies like Laura and her family had done.

Except that this group actually landed in a well-established prairie small town, and not in the depths of farm country. A small town replete with coffee shops and gas stations, and houses furnished with electric heating and lights, and garages for multiple cars. Whatever this Muslim community has acquired rests on the laurels of the previous non-Muslim residents, who had already built and maintained the town. Including the mosque which, for now, is a rented activities hall from an Anglican church.

Throughout the episodes, subtle and persistent prods are made at the dominant culture and traditions. In an episode on a discussion for a New Year's  Eve party, Amaar, the unconventional Imam (he's young, has no beard and speaks with a clear Canadian accent, unlike those "terrorist" Imams) says "New Year's Eve isn't really a big Islamic holiday", and "Actually, in the Islamic calendar there is no last day of December". His invitee responds, "There you go, it will be like [the New Year's Eve party] never happened" to accommodate Amaar's tacit disapproval of the holiday. So much for the very Canadian sounding Amaar. In  his telling classification, holidays are either part of Islam or not. Muslims' celebrations are so intricately linked with their religion, that even non-religious, secular holidays such as New Year's are not acceptable.

Such anti-Western remarks are peppered throughout the program. And despite their jovial, light-hearted air, the jokes are ultimately on the whites and non-Muslims of the community. Many sitcoms such as The George Lopez Show, Everybody hates Chris and even Everybody loves Raymond have an anti-establishment feel to them. But Little Mosque on the Prairie is different. The point of the show seems to be to take over the society entirely - not just to complain about it. To supersede Canadian culture with Islamic or Arabic language, holidays and cultural behavior.

Zarqa Nawaz' goal of putting Islam and Muslims into the mainstream culture (as she puts it, although the subtle intentions of the show is to put Muslims above the mainstream culture, as I've pointed out) may be facing a setback. Ratings are down from the premier of two million viewers in January 2007 to about 500,000 in the latest poll in November 2008. But such low ratings have never stopped the CBC from maintaining ideologically appropriate programs, although they are mostly documentary, educational or news shows, like the investigative Fifth Estate, the current affairs The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos, and David Suziki's "green" The Nature of Things. But, Little Mosque on the Prairie can certainly be viewed as a documentary/educational show in sitcom clothing. It is also ideologically appropriate in the multicultural mindset of the CBC programmers.

And just as planned by  the show's creators, the fictionalized world of Little Mosque on the Prairie is hitting reality outside of the television set. There is an "interactive" Little Mosque on the Prairie website on the CBC's main site which includes "webepisodes" of an Islamic-based TV program, online recipes of African and Muslim foods, and a blog which informs readers of the latest activities. A recent one being Little Mosque on the Prairie sponsoring a food drive in conjunction with Eid-al-Adha celebrations in early December, co-sponsored with various Muslim associations, including the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN) and Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank. Donors are encouraged to follow the guidelines to donate food appropriate for Muslims. Little Mosque is on its way to becoming mainstream.

There is one real-life contender to Little Mosque on the Prairie. This is Edmonton's Al Rashid mosque, the first to be built in Canada (and the US) in 1938. It was constructed with the funds and help of Muslims and non-Muslims from the prairies surrounding Edmonton. This mosque was built in the shape of an Eastern European Orthodox Church, the architect being a Ukrainian Christian (there were large migrations from the Ukraine to the Canadian prairie provinces in the beginning of the 20th century.) This early immigrant Christian architecture was as close as Muslims could get to expressing their Islamic identity in late 19th  and early 20th  century Canada.

Muslim integration in those early years was high (mostly through inter-marriage), and Muslim immigration was a bare minimum. In the 1930s, there were about 700 Muslims throughout Canada. Now, there are over 700,000. The original Al Rashid mosque attendees were never allowed to forget or ignore Canada's foundations and values. Contemporary Muslims, their large numbers exempting them from  assimilating into the dominant society, are not only ignoring these values, but are subtly using mainstream imagery and cultural symbols and trends as a strategy to assimilate Canadians into their Islamic culture. They have no real attachment to Laura Ingalls' lovely family, the true pioneers and nation-builders of the Midwestern prairies. Instead, they are using her cultural influence surreptitiously  as a way to get to the Canadian soul (and soil). And given the international popularity of Little Mosque on the Prairie, the agenda is to do the same world-wide.
Every young girl's library should include Little House on the Prairie. The quasi-autobiographical adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a plucky girl, living with her pioneer farming family in the middle of the great prairies of the US, has also been transformed into a television series which is still on reruns three decades later.

Despite its somewhat misty-eyed hallmark stamp, the television series screens a myriad of  conflicts and unexpected challenges this little family faces and the often heroic and dignified ways in which they try to overcome adversity. Nearby families help out, while some are more antagonistic than others. Villains come and go, accosted and exposed by the small community of tough men determined to protect their families. Tragedies hit, and are dealt with in stoic, quiet dignity. It is an endearing, morality-filled television series.

Fast forward some thirty years and we get what appears like a spin-off show, Little Mosque on the Prairie. But its  only commonality with  the original Little House on the Prairie are four words in the title, and the semi-autobiographical episodes of show's creator Zarqa Nawaz. Even the mosque's town, Mercy, is fictional, unlike all the real places that Laura wrote about. The series' storylines resemble many of the sitcoms airing on current TV channels, with short, truncated dialogues, flat jokes and blithely juvenile feel-good endings.

Little Mosque on the Prairie tries to sell itself as "Muslim Lite". But some Muslim commentators have denounced the shows premises, from the strong presence of women ("The fact that the women were sitting so close to the men is an abomination", writes one blog commenter), to the non-Muslims caste in Muslim roles. One of the first episodes depicting an airport security check of a clearly foreign looking character - the soon-to-be Imam Amaar - talking on his cell phone was denounced by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as too discriminatory against Muslims. Still, whatever the initial glitches, the show has survived three seasons so far on Canada's CBC television station. It is also being aired in over sixty countries, including in Israel, the West Bank Turkey, Finland and France. Twentieth Century Fox Television has picked up the rights to the show to develop a story-line more accessible to the American public.

The most striking thing about the show is its name, which it clearly borrows from Laura Ingalls' book and the 1970s show. Less subtle, but equally significant, is the credit logo that is the exact replica of the 70s series. Is it that Muslim designers and producers are so bereft of imagination that they have to "borrow" from the original? The answer is more complex than that.

Just like the "Muslim Lite" sitcom version the producers settled on, the agenda of Little Mosque on the Prairie is to introduce, as unobtrusively as possible, the Muslim presence to the Canadian public. By borrowing well-recognized and often beloved Canadian symbols to advance their show, Muslims can be portrayed as being  just like any other Canadian -- in fact they are now the new pioneers of the vast, empty prairies, building their societies like Laura and her family had done.

Except that this group actually landed in a well-established prairie small town, and not in the depths of farm country. A small town replete with coffee shops and gas stations, and houses furnished with electric heating and lights, and garages for multiple cars. Whatever this Muslim community has acquired rests on the laurels of the previous non-Muslim residents, who had already built and maintained the town. Including the mosque which, for now, is a rented activities hall from an Anglican church.

Throughout the episodes, subtle and persistent prods are made at the dominant culture and traditions. In an episode on a discussion for a New Year's  Eve party, Amaar, the unconventional Imam (he's young, has no beard and speaks with a clear Canadian accent, unlike those "terrorist" Imams) says "New Year's Eve isn't really a big Islamic holiday", and "Actually, in the Islamic calendar there is no last day of December". His invitee responds, "There you go, it will be like [the New Year's Eve party] never happened" to accommodate Amaar's tacit disapproval of the holiday. So much for the very Canadian sounding Amaar. In  his telling classification, holidays are either part of Islam or not. Muslims' celebrations are so intricately linked with their religion, that even non-religious, secular holidays such as New Year's are not acceptable.

Such anti-Western remarks are peppered throughout the program. And despite their jovial, light-hearted air, the jokes are ultimately on the whites and non-Muslims of the community. Many sitcoms such as The George Lopez Show, Everybody hates Chris and even Everybody loves Raymond have an anti-establishment feel to them. But Little Mosque on the Prairie is different. The point of the show seems to be to take over the society entirely - not just to complain about it. To supersede Canadian culture with Islamic or Arabic language, holidays and cultural behavior.

Zarqa Nawaz' goal of putting Islam and Muslims into the mainstream culture (as she puts it, although the subtle intentions of the show is to put Muslims above the mainstream culture, as I've pointed out) may be facing a setback. Ratings are down from the premier of two million viewers in January 2007 to about 500,000 in the latest poll in November 2008. But such low ratings have never stopped the CBC from maintaining ideologically appropriate programs, although they are mostly documentary, educational or news shows, like the investigative Fifth Estate, the current affairs The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos, and David Suziki's "green" The Nature of Things. But, Little Mosque on the Prairie can certainly be viewed as a documentary/educational show in sitcom clothing. It is also ideologically appropriate in the multicultural mindset of the CBC programmers.

And just as planned by  the show's creators, the fictionalized world of Little Mosque on the Prairie is hitting reality outside of the television set. There is an "interactive" Little Mosque on the Prairie website on the CBC's main site which includes "webepisodes" of an Islamic-based TV program, online recipes of African and Muslim foods, and a blog which informs readers of the latest activities. A recent one being Little Mosque on the Prairie sponsoring a food drive in conjunction with Eid-al-Adha celebrations in early December, co-sponsored with various Muslim associations, including the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN) and Toronto's Daily Bread Food Bank. Donors are encouraged to follow the guidelines to donate food appropriate for Muslims. Little Mosque is on its way to becoming mainstream.

There is one real-life contender to Little Mosque on the Prairie. This is Edmonton's Al Rashid mosque, the first to be built in Canada (and the US) in 1938. It was constructed with the funds and help of Muslims and non-Muslims from the prairies surrounding Edmonton. This mosque was built in the shape of an Eastern European Orthodox Church, the architect being a Ukrainian Christian (there were large migrations from the Ukraine to the Canadian prairie provinces in the beginning of the 20th century.) This early immigrant Christian architecture was as close as Muslims could get to expressing their Islamic identity in late 19th  and early 20th  century Canada.

Muslim integration in those early years was high (mostly through inter-marriage), and Muslim immigration was a bare minimum. In the 1930s, there were about 700 Muslims throughout Canada. Now, there are over 700,000. The original Al Rashid mosque attendees were never allowed to forget or ignore Canada's foundations and values. Contemporary Muslims, their large numbers exempting them from  assimilating into the dominant society, are not only ignoring these values, but are subtly using mainstream imagery and cultural symbols and trends as a strategy to assimilate Canadians into their Islamic culture. They have no real attachment to Laura Ingalls' lovely family, the true pioneers and nation-builders of the Midwestern prairies. Instead, they are using her cultural influence surreptitiously  as a way to get to the Canadian soul (and soil). And given the international popularity of Little Mosque on the Prairie, the agenda is to do the same world-wide.