Sitcoms Do Matter

Muslims are the most despised group in America today, according to researchers. More people hate Muslims than gay people, Asians, Jews and Mexicans, at least since 2004 when such evidence started being recorded. And when hate spikes, so do hate crimes. And politicians like Donald Trump use the prejudice to make voters bellieve that a vote for them helps in the epic battle against Islam.

So when I got a phone call from CNN telling me about a study that reduced negative feelings about Muslims, I was surprised. It involved the humble sitcom.

Participants were given six episodes of the Canadian comedy Little Mosque on the Prairie, which featured a mixed cast of relatable Muslims from different ethnic backgrounds such as Nigeria, Lebanon and Pakistan as well as non-Muslim characters. The viewers' level of prejudice/bias against Muslims was significantly reduced after watching six episodes. Even after a month, people still felt the same. The control group was given episodes of Friends to watch, a show with an all white cast. And unsurprisingly prejudice levels against Muslims stayed the same in that group.

"Entertainment media play a critical role in shaping people's feelings, attitudes and behaviors in intergroup contexts," said Sohad Murrar, the lead author of the study and doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But this study also highlights issues that #OscarsSoWhite campaign has brought up. Diversity in media isn't just about recognizing and providing a platform for artists of color, it also plays a powerful role in changing how an entire community or faith group is perceived by the dominant majority.

"Narratives that promote diversity and positive social change can improve intergroup relations by bolstering collective efficacy, reducing bias, and increasing identification with minority groups," says Ms. Murrar.

As the creator of the show Little Mosque on the Prairie, I shouldn't be surprised at this study. But the show had a rocky reception from my community when it first aired in 2007. My motives were questioned. After all, our depiction in Hollywood has been pretty dismal. Even I'm afraid of Muslims after watching Homeland.

The premise of the series: a liberal lawyer leaves his cushy job in Toronto to become an imam of a backwater mosque, which was just a rented space in an Anglican church, desperate for funds, in the tiny town of Mercy, Saskatchewan seemed pretty banal. But if you were a conservative Muslim, burning issues such as: Where was the imam's beard? How dare I have a husband pinch his wife's butt in the prayer hall, and since when was dressing up children like a creature out of the Qur'an for Halloween acceptable? A petition was circulated in the community to have me removed as a member in good standing. I was insulting Muslims, thus in turn insulting Islam. I resigned to avoid further controversy.

Meanwhile right wing pundits opined that the show wasn't accurate enough-- where were the honor killings, the stonings, and the bombs hidden in headscarves. The show was clearly a propaganda piece created to white wash Muslims in order to make gullible Westerners let their guard down.

I could have used a stiff drink with Norman Lear in those tumultuous early days.

The community was worried that exposing the inner workings of a mosque community would only make people hate us more. But the opposite seemed to be happening. By making the show so specific about a single religious community, it became more universally relatable. People started to identify with characters that resembled people in their own congregations. Somehow, the endless arguments over moonsighting and fights over Muslim-only cemeteries made us all look more human. To be sure, this wasn't a cutting edge show like Girls, it was more milquetoast like All in the Family, but that's what made the show revolutionary - the mundane life of Muslims had never been depicted in comedy before.

Ironically, the show was inspired by an entirely different motive than making Muslims look good. In 2005, I had made the documentary Me and the Mosque for the National Film Board of Canada about patriarchy and misogyny that had invaded mosque culture and relegated women to subordinate places of worship, behind curtains and partitions so men wouldn't be distracted. I was inspired by a similar documentary Half the Kingdom about Jewish women and their struggles for equality in synagogues. I wondered how things would change in a mosque if an imam who cared deeply about gender equality was hired. Feminism and Islam may seem like strange bedfellows when creating a comedy about Muslims, but it worked, and show was a hit.

A few episodes of Little Mosque on the Prairie aren't going to change the minds of Donald Trump and his supporters. The show is a drop in a bucket and there's going to have to be deep, and systemic changes in the entertainment world if minority groups such as Muslims are going to be seen as normal, patriotic citizens and not the demonic "other" bent on the destruction of the civilized world. In the meantime, grab a bag of popcorn and watch the episode where Christmas and Eid fall in the same time period and Christian and Muslims have an epic battle over parking lot space.