Thursday, December 07, 2006

Can Laughing at Each Other Help?

The International Herald Tribune has the story of a new Canadian Broadcasting Series called “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” It is the tale of a fully integrated Canadian Muslim who takes over as imam of a mosque in a smallish city on the Canadian plains. Traditionalist Canadian Muslims apparently interact with younger, more assimilated ones, as well as with the broader society, and hilarity ensues. (Although as some wags have pointed out, if it is on the CBC, comedy will be the one thing missing from this situation comedy.)

This is a potentially promising development in the tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim in predominantly non-Muslim countries. I argued just a few posts ago that the hallmark of the tribally secure society is that everyone is comfortable laughing at their own and everyone else's tribal stereotypes. Ethnic humor, in other words, is (in a non-spiteful way) widely accepted. That a Chris Rock can build a solid career out of making fun of blacks and whites, or that Jewish comedians can lampoon Jewish insecurities and non-Jews can find it hilarious rather than a hallmark of their own latent anti-Semitism, is a good sign.

I wrote an essay awhile back called Choosing Sides. In it I argued that ethnoreligious extremists would target not just the other group but those in their own community who tried to reach across the divide. I also contended that once this process starts it is easy for people to more and more cleave into their groups, and the proportion of the population devoted to intertribal harmony shrinks. The Samarra mosque attack clearly accelerated Sunni/Shiite polarization in Iraq, and there have been several news accounts in recent days of pokes in the eyes delivered by one group to the other in the U.S. - showboating imams misbehaving in an airport (perhaps looking to gin up a discrimination lawsuit) on the one hand, a Texan deciding to hold pig races on his land to prevent a proposed mosque from being built next door on the other.

But an optimist might suppose that perhaps we can all laugh our way through this. The series creator, Zarqa Nawaz, apparently an observant but fully assimilated Canadian Muslim, has scripted one scene in which Muslim women taking swimming lessons find that today's instructor is a man, which poses obvious problems. But it turns out he's a gay man, so they have to explore whether that makes any difference. That a key tenet of Canadian (and much of Western) society, comfort with uncloseted gay people, is part of a series focusing on Muslims, is probably a good sign. My ultimate proposed test of whether “Little Mosque” helps people get along more than not is that Muslims and non-Muslims are laughed at in equal measure, and that nothing sacred is profaned. If so, Ms Nawaz has done her society a useful service.


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