BOB GARFIELD: You may recall that last month we ran a fake interview about a nonexistent television network with a made-up sitcom we called Jihad to Be There. Billed as, quote, "a madcap romp through a terrorist training camp," it was our idea of an April Fool's joke.
Well, it turns out the joke was on us. Since January, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been airing Little Mosque on the Prairie, a comedy about a small Muslim congregation in rural Canada rubbing elbows with the local Christians, where headscarves, prayer mats and Islamic tradition all serve as props. [CLIP]: WOMAN: Here's one I get at the clinic. Why do you Moslems pray all the time, hmm? MAN: Okay. Let me get this one. You see, my pasty white friend, in prayer, every muscle and bone in the body joins the mind and the soul in the glory and worship of Allah! WOMAN: No, that'll sound too weird for our Christian visitors.
MAN: Weird? They drink Jesus' blood. [END OF CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Zarqa Nawaz is the creator of the show and Mary Darling its executive producer. They join me now. Zarqa, Mary, welcome to the show. MARY DARLING: Thanks for having us. ZARQA NAWAZ: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Zarqa, I want to start with you. If I'm a network executive and someone comes pitching Little Mosque on the Prairie, you know, I've got to start looking around for the hidden cameras, because obviously [LAUGHS] - [OVERTALK] - this has to be some sort of gag. Did you get that reaction? ZARQA NAWAZ: No, I didn't. I have to say, to the credit of the CBC, right off the pitch they loved it. And I remember a few years later after, you know, the show aired and was a hit, I asked Anton Leo, the head of comedy, why he had chosen it. And he said, because I'm the son of Italian immigrants, and I could hear my story in your story. BOB GARFIELD: Describe for me the dynamics of this cast of characters and this little fictional town that they inhabit. ZARQA NAWAZ: Well, it starts off with a young lawyer. His name is Amaar Rashid. He decides to give up his law practice and go and become an imam in a small rural town of Mercy. And in this mosque are a sort of young feminist woman, Rayyan, who views him as sort of a progressive imam, someone who's going to change things in the mosque. And yet, there are conservative men who expect him to toe the conservative line, so he's sort of diplomatically trying to deal with both sides.
And then, on top of that, he's got the right-wing radio shock jock and he's got the very pragmatic mayor who's trying to, you know, stay elected and keep everybody, Muslims and non-Muslims, happy. He's got the secular kind of non-practicing man who is Rayyan's father, who runs his construction business in the mosque; he loves religion as long as it doesn't interfere with his business. So we sort of have a whole range of characters trying to make their community work. BOB GARFIELD: Apart from their interpersonal relationships, the characters on the show – the Muslim characters – are constantly running into various kinds of prejudice and ignorance and stereotype. One character tries to get a one-way airline ticket back to Toronto and can't get it because he's got, you know, a Muslim-sounding name.
Was there a particular subject that was kind of a burr in your saddle that you were just dying to create a sitcom situation around? ZARQA NAWAZ: I mean, for me it was the whole world had changed after 9/11 for Muslims. You know, because of the act of 19 criminals an entire faith was demonized. And I knew that the only way to break down the type of stereotypes is through popular culture and through media. And I work through humor, because that's a universal way of humanizing people. And I felt that I wanted to show Muslims as ordinary human beings with everyday issues that everyone else would have. BOB GARFIELD: And Mary, I guess your actors are thrilled to get a call from their agent and have him not say, yeah, yeah, good, another terrorist. MARY DARLING: Oh, absolutely. In fact, Carlo Rota lives and works now in L.A. and works on 24, and moved from Canada because he couldn't get cast as anything other than a villain. Simultaneously with him getting cast on 24, we brought him back up to play really what's a romantic lead as an Arab Muslim on Little Mosque on the Prairie. BOB GARFIELD: There's an episode about a conversion.
MARY DARLING: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] BOB GARFIELD: Tell me about it. MARY DARLING: Well, it's interesting because, you know, we've had a lot of conversions in the Muslim community lately. And sometimes we find that converts become overly enthusiastic about the faith, and they become extremely ideological and they start to consider Muslims who were born and raised in Islam not practicing enough.
And I wanted to sort of speak to that issue, you know, how irritating it is in the community when, you know, the white person comes in and tells us that we're not good enough anymore. BOB GARFIELD: Here's what a bit of that episode sounded like. [CLIP]: [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MAN: I bear witness that there is no God but God and Mohammed is his messenger. [OVERTALK] [MAN SHOUTING IN ARABIC] MAN: Please, take it easy, Papi! [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER] BOB GARFIELD: Now, that's funny. [LAUGHTER] ZARQA NAWAZ: [LAUGHS] Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: But I have to ask you this. In many ways, I think Little Mosque just exchanges one set of stereotypes for another batch, I mean, or at least typical one-dimensional sitcom characters. I mean, you’ve got the pretty one, you’ve got the venal one, you've got the almost-perfect one, your imam, you've got one zealot, and so on. There's not a whole lot of verisimilitude here. In that sense, have you really gained anything by way of genuine understanding? ZARQA NAWAZ: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I would completely disagree with you. In fact, what we've done is created Muslims who are husbands and wives, who pay bills and raise their kids. We have never seen that Muslim on television ever before.
And I've had Americans come up to me and say, oh, my God, you know, I look at this bearded man; instead of now being afraid of bearded men when I see them on the street, I think that they're regular people, and you've taken away that fear that I used to have before, ‘cause all I ever would see on CNN or Fox or 24. They were the ones screaming and yelling, death to America and oppression to women, and that's all they were.
And yet, now you have a man in the show who's a single father, raising a daughter, struggling, having a difficult time, and it's changed my perception of you and your community. So absolutely, I would say it's done a lot for change. BOB GARFIELD: Now you are in New York for an event at the Museum of Radio and Television. Last week, I guess, you were in Los Angeles at its Museum of Radio and Television for a panel about this program because it's generated so much interest. You're all about creating understanding, exploding stereotypes. And you go through this entire panel, and a woman stands up with the last question, and what does she say? MARY DARLING: How do you feel about making a show that promotes terrorism? BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] And how do you drag yourself out of bed to go to work in the morning – MARY DARLING: [LAUGHS] I have to, you know – [OVERTALK] BOB GARFIELD: - if that's what you're dealing with? MARY DARLING: Obviously, you knew you touched a nerve. And I think the Jewish community has gone through this, the African-American community has gone through this. And through popular culture they've been able to erase some of the stereotypes about them. I know it sounds strange, but sitcoms are sort of a vehicle for a change in people's perceptions of an image of a group of people. And now it's our turn BOB GARFIELD: Now, I've got an idea for a spin-off for you. MARY DARLING: Yeah? BOB GARFIELD: I'm not sure if you're interested. But it's called Jihad to Be There. [LAUGHTER] And it's - about a terrorist training camp, a wacky, zany terrorist training camp. You guys interested? MARY DARLING: I'll send you an option agreement. [LAUGHTER] BOB GARFIELD: Zarqa Nawaz, Mary Darling, thank you so much for joining us.
ZARQA NAWAZ: Thanks for having us. MARY DARLING: Thanks for having us. BOB GARFIELD: Zarqa Nawaz is the creator and writer of Little Mosque on the Prairie. Mary Darling is its executive producer. The show airs on the CBC. BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips and Nazanin Rafsanjani and edited – by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had engineering help from Ed Haber and Paul Schneider. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I'm Bob Garfield.