by ALEX CARNEVALE
God gave Italian-Americans The Godfather and Frank Sinatra, the Irish community Good Will Hunting and Jack Donaghy, and the Armenian community the Kardashians. The U.S. has had little to no artistic engagement with Muslim culture and certainly nothing resembling a killer app. The only thing Muslims are doing on American television is kidnapping Jack Bauer's daughter or getting high and eating cheeseburgers. America bulldozes immigrant cultures; the cold of Canada seems to incorporate Muslims without the use of a hammer.
There are about 783,700 Muslims in Canada. (There are 348,605 Jews and six to ten Scientologists.) A poll from a couple of years ago suggested that 64 percent of Americans wouldn't allow their son or daughter to date a Muslim. In contrast, a 2005 Trudeau Foundation poll revealed that 78 percent (!) of Canadians believe that U.S. foreign policy is a cause of Islamic terrorism. Polls are polls, but it's not hard to conclude that Canadians have far more favorable impressions of less than a million Muslims in their midst than American does with the proportionally far smaller 4 to 5 million Muslims in their midst.
Art proves this more swiftly than sociology. In 2007, Saskatchewan-based writer Zarqa Nawaz premiered her show Little Mosque on the Prairie. The sitcom eschews a laugh track in recognition of the fact that exactly how humorous you find its jokes depends on the specific audience. Since everything else is merely transitory and art and underwear are the only enduring elements of civilization, Laura Ingalls Wilder should be proud, flattered, and very surprised.
It is doubtful the South Dakota-raised Wilder had ever seen a mosque. In this respect, she is not much different from the majority of Americans living over a century after she was born. Wilder began her writing career because of her daughter Rose, who had similar aspirations, and eventually the senior Wilder wrote a column in a local newspaper for many years called "As a Farm Woman Thinks." Little House on the Prairie was almost completely rewritten by Rose Wilder Lane, one of the most highly compensated female writers of the 1920s.
Women were always the best libertarians because the centerpiece of their platform was freedom for women. (Coincidentally, this was one of the strategies of early Islam.) I learned much about life from Little House on the Prairie; most notably, that intercourse on the prairie is frequently uncomfortable and often occurs in trees.
Life strolling the gentle fields of the Dakotas was idyllic and tremendous. If you didn't like someone, there was a high probability they would die of malaria within the week. Anderson Cooper had not even been born yet. By 1945 Rose Wilder Lane penned a weekly column for the nation's biggest black newspaper imbued with the libertarian ideals inherent in the wild freedom of her mother's pioneer life, honed by travels around the world.
The point of the Little House on the Prairie series of books was to create stories that parents could read to their children without falling asleep themselves, and it is this cross-generational appeal that the television show attempted to replicate in 1974, sometimes clumsily. Despite purportedly taking place on the Minnesota prairie, Little House On The Prairie's set was obviously California. (At one point Melissa Gilbert was so inconsolable about a subplot that she ran up a mountain.) Continuity errors only emphasized the main point: that America was a new Eden, replete with wonders so raw and unexpected they represented a ongoing delight.
Saskatchewan is Eden for Muslim immigrants. Little Mosque on the Prairie concerns Amaar Rashid (Zaib Shaikh), a lawyer from a secular Muslim family who becomes the iman in a tiny little town called Mercy. Rashid quickly sets his sights on a half-white doctor named Rayyan (Sitara Hewitt) and spends the rest of his time exploring the intersections of the two cultures. Now in its sixth season, Amaar's mosque currently shares space with the mercurial, somewhat racist Reverend Thorne (Brandon Firla), who manages the most disturbing television portrayal of a man of the cloth since Father Ted.
The point of Little Mosque on the Prairie is to turn Muslims into kindly beacons of humanity. Even the most doctrinaire Muslims are revealed to have a heart of gold, and their opposite number, a light parody of Rush Limbaugh, is also revealed as a benevolent dictatorship of staged thought. Little Mosque on the Prairie has been incredibly successful and was recently renewed for a final season.
An American version of Little Mosque on the Prairie has been "in production" long enough to know it will never happen. A show with a Muslim protagonist won't be greenlit by network television executives, despite advocates who draw suggestive parallels to The Cosby Show and Seinfeld. Each show did the work of changing the way a generation of people think about an American minority, and like Little Mosque, they rarely ventured outside the most familiar comedic strictures.
The world is bigger now than it was then. The engagement of the West with Muslims no longer occurs solely on Western soil.
In 1923, Rose Wilder Lane began her own travels through the Islamic world. She spent a rewarding period in Albania, Armenia, Syria and Egypt before approaching Baghdad in a Ford Model T specially outfitted with tires to traverse the desert, nearly running out of gas in the process. Her cohort was forced to depend on the kindness of a local tribe for supplies.
Once she reached the city, she felt let down. It was nothing to compare to a place like Damascus, Rose thought, and she was unable to enter the mosques because of a prohibition on Christians in holy places. She later wrote, "And in Baghdad, where India comes up the Tigris to smudge clean Arabia, I turned back. The fabulous East was the easier way home but I had seen enough of its human misery, its killing toil and ignorance and humility, its so-called 'spirituality' born of hopelessness and starvation, and the revolting snobbery of Westerners too stupid to recognize their own brutality." We can feel her frustration. With British officers everywhere she went, there was no chance of knowing the place the way she wanted to.
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