The combat of Islamophobia through CBCs Little Mosque on the Prairie: How does the medias portrayal of Islam need to change to contribute to the acceptance of Muslims in Western countries?

At a time when Islamophobia has reached a renewed peak, it is necessary to better understand Muslims to prevent targeted violence, misunderstanding, and to support peace and coexistence among all regardless of faith (or no faith) and background. I believe this could be tactfully achieved by returning to Canadian television sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie, which aired from 2007 through 2012 on the CBC Television Network. Initially available only to Canadian viewers, Little Mosque on the Prairie was eventually broadcast in a total of 83 countries. The first episode of the series titled “Little Mosque”, in my opinion, started the paradigm shift in understanding of Muslim culture among Canadians addressing issues such as diversity through fashion and attitudes, associations with terrorism and traveling as a Muslim, daily misconceptions, conservative and liberal interpretations, and the role of women. Therefore, the series should be further examined as an ideal model for the United States given the current state of their political climate.

The first episode opens with an extremely diverse representation of Muslims entering the mosque in the fictitious town of Mercy, Saskatchewan. They are wearing traditional American, South Asian and Arab garments. The show successfully presents the various and diverse appearances of Muslim men and women in cultural garment, as well as women with the head cover and without, which opens a new perspective to the various ways Muslims dress. Later on, however, the episode continues with most men wearing caps and most women wearing head scarves, which in reality only some Muslim women wear, and is an inaccurate representation of Muslims in general, especially those living here in Canada. On the other hand, it does capture attention from an audience that might usually turn a blind-eye that can eventually lead to better more informed presentations of Muslims from the show. Coming from a family history of leaving one country for another because of persecution or even business and educational opportunities, my family has placed immense significance on adjusting to the ways and fashion of the people living in those countries in which we reside which differentiates my family from many other Muslims who have come straight to Canada from a single country. Even my great-grandfather right up to my father today never sported a beard, something highly linked to orthodox traditions of Islam. The head cover also has no place in my family. I believe it was my second great-grandmother who last wore hers for ceremonial purposes only. Today, my mom does not wear a head cover and never would. Similarly, I have never worn a traditional garment in my life and question what that may be given my English, Indian, East African and Iranian history. I have found often in my life people expect me to define myself: what I am, who I am, where I am from and I cannot do that personally and therefore people who cannot accept that seem shocked, surprised and upset but this is the result of the fact that I am the product of a multitude of different traditions and ethnicities. Ultimately, the writer of the show has been able to successfully explore various dimensions of fashion within the Muslim community especially through its multiethnic and highly cosmopolitan makeup.

This episode sought to connect the viewer, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, through satirizing attitudes towards everyday life including modern day pop culture. In the beginning, the acting Muslim religious preacher condemns wine-gums, liquorice, and rye-bread because of their suggestive nature towards alcohol (‘haram’ or forbidden). He discourages the show Desperate Housewives and some women in attendance are seen asking each other if they taped the last episode and their obvious interest in the show appears disregarding anything the conservative leader has to say before them introducing the concept of self-evaluation and discretion within the faith. Through criticizing simple items such as candy, bread and a television show, this episode takes a comedic intervention on the cultural baggage which can disrupt religious enrichment and understanding. In sum, the show has also approached diversity of cultural attitudes as part of religious interpretation in the Muslim community through this episode.

Following the series’ consideration of various topical issues, the episode addresses common associations of Islam with terrorism and violent extremism. In one scene during the same episode, a non-Muslim accidentally walks in on a congregation of Muslims praying, witnessing practices that are considerably different than those performed by Christians. Uninformed and out of fear, the individual immediately calls the “terrorist attack hotline” to report his “findings” not completely unpredictable given present day media disproportionately referencing the violent Taliban and Al-Qaeda groups as opposed to better and peaceful examples (Poole). The pastor, however, informs the concerned town member that Muslims are generally not fanatics and not to be paranoid a looming issue today (Elbih). This reflects the common trend of fearing what is unknown and portrays jumping to conclusions society makes all the time regarding minority groups and peoples – including by a certain Donald Trump. The story line of this episode involves a Parish that is rented out to a Muslim community to provide them a space for prayer. By addressing associations of Islam with terrorism, the series does not ignore obvious issues present today and historically immediately after 9/11.

As the first episode progresses, further examination towards the experiences of Muslim travelers is opened up. The very first episode introduces a new religious preacher – or Imam – for the Muslim community based in the small town Prairie community where the series is set. As the new leader, originally from Toronto, checks in for his flight, he is seen speaking with his mother over the phone and over the course of his discussion just as he approaches the counter, police officials take him aside and take away his bag. This segment of the episode introduces trouble at the airport and is something many Muslims and individuals with Middle Eastern influenced names experience. A journalist later upon his arrival in the Prairie town of Mercy questions the new religious leader, Amaar, if he is from Saudi Arabia to which he responds “No, I’m from Toronto!” The comedic spin of the episode and even the entire series slowly eliminates Islamophobia and misunderstanding tackling several issues each episode to break down barriers experienced by this highly misunderstood people. After dealing with hatred from non-Muslims upon his arrival into “Mercy”, Amaar decides to return to Toronto and when booking his flight back is told to hold while a supervisor assists the booking to which Amaar responds “Can’t a Muslim book a one-way flight these days without someone having to call their supervisor?” Strikingly, to myself at least, I have had a similar situation when it comes to online check-in for flights – I simply cannot and must go to the airport counter. As a twelve year old boy flying to Houston, Texas I even recall unable to check-in at the airport and a supervisor having to be called by the front desk agent (after a red flash on the screen) and eventually having to provide more information about myself before being permitted to move into the boarding area. My humiliating experience is just one of the many that Muslims go through even forcing some (like my dad even though a Canadian citizen) to avoid traveling altogether (especially to the United States!). Altogether, the events in this episode highlight the many adversities Muslims experience while traveling.

As a result of misinformation, numerous misconceptions that are not deduced also surface in this episode. During a radio segment with the concerned town member being interviewed during this episode, the radio host mentions that Muslims hate freedom and democracy – a common misconception in Britain (Versi)– but when Amaar, the local Muslim religious leader is invited to the show he does not address these topics during the interview rather unimpressed. It seems as if the idea is incomplete and should have been addressed as Muslims in countries with political unrest having been working very hard for these two things and have not been listened to, only ignored. This scene further questions journalistic integrity and responsibility to provide the truth which the interviewer did not practice and confirms the need for “special training for journalists working in areas touching on Islamic faith and culture, and guidelines for sensitive topics” to avoid the conflation of Islam with criminality as a result of religious illiteracy (Versi). Later on, a scene evolves between the Mayor of the town and her public relations officer, Sarah, a Muslim convert married to an active Muslim member of the town involved with the organization of the Muslim prayer hall currently rented from the Parish. The mayor tells Sarah to call the police for help but Sarah responds that she does not need help as her husband is not a terrorist and that it is ridiculous idea as a result of sensationalism and scaremongering. The mayor immediately apologizes dismissing her suggestions. By dismissing assertions immediately for those with no voice or representation, those who do not understand them can be open to new ways of thinking supported by mature and logical reasoning.

As new issues emerge, differences between conservative and liberal interpretations within the faith are taken into account. This is obvious later on in the episode when the congregation is concerned with when Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting) should begin as the Islamic calendar is based on the moon and does not fall perfectly in the Gregorian calendar we use today. This episode shows Muslims arguing when to begin fasting for the period of Ramadan and one person uses a telescope to observe the moon while another proposes going onto a particular website as a reference representing how conservative traditionalists and modern liberals disagree regularly on various issues. This scene portrays Islam as a rigid fixed faith with only one way to do things otherwise it is wrong – this is not actually true. In reality, different denominations and communities may start Ramadan on different dates (usually around the same time) but still spend the same amount of time around the same time of the year fasting. This episode further introduces the Muslim season of Ramadan with two women of different cultural backgrounds bickering about what food will be present to end the day’s fast (over a meal called ‘Iftar’). However, the show does not mention that fasting by way of not eating is not a requirement and is entirely a choice. It also does not introduce the idea that to many Muslims Ramadan also holds other special observances such as abstaining from harmful activities and the performance of good deeds, charitable giving and voluntary service to ultimately reinforce the spiritual and moral character of the person which are a major component of Islam (Espiritu). The show concludes with Christians and Muslims together sharing a Ramadan meal with both traditional options (goat) and non-traditional options (cucumber sandwiches). As can be seen above, Muslims and their ways of life can be highly differentiable and further shaped through their own conservative or liberal approaches to the religion.

The series also embarks upon gender equality, in particular through the significance of women in Muslim communities. This is a ground breaking change in western programming which is not so clear in other common media representations as identified in CSI and Criminal Minds (MediaSmarts) of Muslim women which frequently show them as faceless, dark, and hidden “neglecting to consider the diversity of female Muslim experiences” (MediaSmarts). In this episode it is obvious when Rayyan (an Islamic feminist and trained medical doctor) tells Amaar that he was the guy she had hoped would bring a progressive mind to the religious position given the fact he was born and raised in Canada like myself and I do agree. She says “I thought you’d drag us into the modern world” and in many ways I have done the same with my own family – African immigrants of Asian descent. When I speak with Muslims who have come from other countries to Canada recently, tensions which stem from political distress and cultural attitudes become clear. By giving Muslim women significant representation and taking on positions of civic engagement, the show has ultimately opened doors toward the understanding of another people and a way forward in Muslim women’s development.

In the final analysis, Islam is conceived in the West through the violence committed by adjacent minorities instead of through the peaceful and good nature held by the vast majority of its adherents. Little Mosque on the Prairie was a breakthrough for Muslim representation in the media and has played a significant role is dispelling stereotypes addressing issues including diversity through fashion and attitudes, associations with terrorism and traveling as a Muslim, daily misconceptions, conservative and liberal interpretations of the faith, and the role of women. Especially when media portray other religions and cultures negatively with misinformation, exaggeration, propaganda and error through compromised “journalistic truth” (Khan) it becomes challenging to understand these other faiths and lifestyles. While some conservative Muslims from various cultures may not agree with all of the series’ messages conveyed and some non-Muslims may remain in fear of the highly diverse Muslim culture, the show has created a better interfaith and intercultural understanding for people in Canada and should be aired in United States to change perceptions of Muslims there that could result in major policy changes to the ones recently enforced through President Trump’s executive orders. Supporting this theory, through better representations of Islam in Canadian media over the last decade less prejudice in younger children towards Muslims was correspondingly identified (MediaSmarts). For American youth, I think through receiving the show well and having a better understanding into a greatly ostracized group of people, hopefully meaningful change will result and Islamophobia will decline.

WORKS CITED

Elbih, Randa. “Teaching about Islam and Muslims While Countering Cultural Misrepresentations.” Social Studies, vol. 106, no. 3, 01 Jan. 2015, pp. 112-116. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.capilanou.ca/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1059309&site=eds-live.

Espiritu, Belinda. “Islamophobia and the ‘Negative Media Portrayal of Muslims’.” Global Research, 29 Feb. 2016, http://www.globalresearch.ca/islamophobia-and-the-negative-media-portrayal-of-muslims/5440451.

Khan, Ahmed. “The Media Owes Us The Truth About Islam.” Huffington Post, 8 Apr. 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ahmed-khan/the-media-owes-us-the-truth-about-islam_b_9628280.html.

“Media Portrayals of Religion: Islam.” MediaSmarts, http://mediasmarts.ca/diversity- media/religion/media-portrayals-religion-islam. Accessed 20 May 2017. Poole, Elizabeth. “How is Islam represented on the BBC.” openDemocracy, 15 Mar. 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourbeeb/elizabeth-poole/how-is-islam-represented-on-bbc.

Versi, Miqdaad. “Why the British media is responsible for the rise in Islamophobia in Britain.” The Independent, 4 Apr. 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/why-the-british-media-is-responsible-for-the-rise-in-islamophobia-in-britain-a6967546.html.

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