[mosque]Imagine being in line to board a flight while a man in front of you is talking on the phone with someone else, using words like “suicide” and “bomb.” Obviously, you only hear his side, and immediately think the worst: he must be Muslim and he must be planning on blowing up you and the other passengers. You decide to book it – fast.
Now pretend you’re watching the current Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hit Little Mosque on the Prairie. The main character, a Muslim, is talking on the phone with his mom, telling her that the move he is currently in the middle of is not “financial suicide,” and that he “didn’t drop a bomb” on his dad. Of course you know what’s going on – you have the distinct pleasure of being a member of the viewing audience. But the woman behind Amaar (the main character), looks immediately panicked, and rushes to find a seat on another flight.
It seems pretty ridiculous now, right? But the fact is, Muslims in both Canada and America find themselves faced with absurdity everyday, especially since 9/11. This particular show, created by Zarqa Nawaz, a Muslim, aims to show these daily events in a previously taboo light – with humor.
Nada Zohdy, an international relations and psychology freshman, thinks the reason that Little Mosque works is because it appeals to everyday life, rather than events that are only seen on CNN coverage. “I think the deal with it is that it’s good to poke fun of things Muslims do, and not the basic Islamic principles,” Zohdy said.
And maybe that’s the true reason the show has proven to be successful so far. Chicago-based comedian Azhar Usman said response for Nawaz – whom he has worked with and calls a friend – has been very encouraging. “[The reaction to the show] has been overwhelmingly positive,” Usman said. “We have been really honored and delighted – and not just among Muslims.”
The show aims to create a spectrum-wide appeal, using humor that Muslims can relate to, but also providing fodder for the average CBC viewer. “[The show] has crossed over and increasingly diversified,” Usman said.
Mohammad Khalil, a visiting instructor of religious studies, said using television shows like this one, and other forms of media to counteract the preconceived image many Americans have of a Muslim, is important. \”It presents counter-images to Muslims like Bin Laden [who do not even make up one percent of the Muslim population],” Khalil said. “It attempts to balance out potential stereotypes.\”
Intolerance in America
[book]Hardly a new notion, intolerance and bigotry in America began when the country did. Throughout our more than 200-year history, the archetypal white male figure has dominated, leaving an assortment of minorities to fend off hatred. Although we no longer employ slaves and women have been able to vote for almost 90 years, much of the population would say intolerance is alive and kickin’. The Muslim population in America ranges from 1.1 million to 5 million, according to various websites, and has always fallen victim, but most significantly since 9/11.
“Since 9/11, [the status of Muslims] has both improved and gotten worse,” Khalil said. “More people know, and are either sympathetic or antagonistic.”
Whether someone is sympathetic or antagonistic, Zohdy said the fact that any sort of information being portrayed about her religion and its people is the most important thing. “With 9/11, something good can come out of anything,” Zohdy said. “There’s some negativity, but it stimulates curiosity.”
The curiosity Zohdy speaks of is something she’s experienced often, especially since she decided to start wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering. “I’ve been lucky – I’ve never had anything blatantly offensive happen to me. More than once, people ask me questions.”
Teaching a Lesson
With most television comedies, the moral at the end of the story is often not as important as a few laughs and automated applause. However, because of Little Mosque on the Prairie’s subject matter, more often than not will a lesson be taught. Khalil thinks that the most important lesson learned is also the broadest and most easily accessible: “Muslims are just like everyone else, and we’re more similar than we are different.”
[three]He believes that the positive response so far to the show will create a far-better representation of the majority of Muslims. “Overall, even if the show has no other message, they’ll see the counter-image of normal Muslims.”
Both Khalil and Usman compared the show’s overall effect to that of The Cosby Show, which portrayed a well-to-do black family in the 1980s. Usman said the show was so successful because it “decoded blackness” with the help of Dr. Alvin Poussaint, who was a script consultant.
“People say we need a Cosby Show, and this show is well-received by Muslims,” Khalil said.
Zohdy thinks the best message the show will produce is the idea that, although these actors portray Muslims in Canada well, it does not epitomize every single Muslim. “It’s important for whoever watches the show to know that the characters [in the show] shouldn’t be represented as Muslims as a whole.”
She also hopes that the attention surrounding the show will bring viewers to really look into the religion. “To teach people, they shouldn’t watch the show instead of reading the Qur’an [the Holy Book],” she said.
Allah Made Them Funny
As one of the few American Muslim comedians, Usman has had to work against the typical grain of American entertainment. But one of the fundamental rules of comedy is that making fun of oneself is the best way for a laugh.
“If you can’t poke fun of yourself, then people can’t take you seriously,” Zohdy said.
Usman said he has been generally well-received among all types of audiences, but knows that being a comedian is all about working your way out of a hard place to emerge victorious. “Humor has always been used as a tool by people who are underdogs,” Usman said. “It’s a way to deal with reality, to fight back.”
[azhar]And by laughing at subjects that make most people walk on eggshells, Usman and Co. aim to make it just another day at the comedy club. Usman created the “Allah Made Me Funny – the Official Muslim Comedy Tour” with fellow Muslim comedian Preacher Moss three years ago. According to the tour’s website, www.allahmademefunny.com, the goal of the comedy gigs is to “make a comprehensive effort to provide effective, significant, and appropriate comedy with an Islamic perspective, which is both mainstream and cross-cultural.”
Khalil thinks laughter can be used skillfully to bring the focus back to the idea that everyone is inherently the same, and can learn to laugh together. “Anytime you can get people to laugh, it allows people to reexamine. It lightens things up a bit.”
On the television show’s pilot episode, the main character said, “Muslims around the world are known for their sense of humor.” Although he was kidding in the show, Khalil said, just like any other group of people, Muslims are funny, too. “People are funny in any faith, and we do have a lot of laughs,” Khalil said.
Laughter is the Best Medicine for Prejudice
“Comedy is tragedy plus heart,” Usman said. The comedian uses this mantra as part of his routine, finding comfort that anything that may be viewed as distressing to his faith can be turned around and used as material. The idea of finding humor in relatively sad situations is nothing new, but when it becomes Muslim-themed, the situation is fresh and original.
Usman cited the Qur’an in reference to the theme. “The part of what makes me fundamentally a human is that we laugh and cry,” he said. Usman said comedy and tragedy are “inextricably linked with one another.” To be able to laugh hard will lead to crying, and vice versa.
In comedy, basically everything goes. Some comedians aim to offend, others preach a particular message and a few (or more) use self-deprecation (Geez, they don’t get any respect.) The bottom line is that comedy is used to bring people together, because in a world where anything can suddenly push friends, neighbors and relatives apart, the need for a uniting force is ultimately essential. Comedy’s history has shown each disenfranchised group finds a way to make light of their plight, and in some cases, find ways to make things better. It’s true that laughter is the best medicine, and America is in full need of a prescription.

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