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Breaking Down Media Stereotypes of Muslims: My Fellow American and Little Mosque on the Prairie

2011 July 5

We recently blogged about our discussion with the filmmakers of the documentary Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. One of the important points raised in the film and the subsequent discussion was that media depictions of Muslims focus on militants, who represent a small fraction of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims. This overrepresentation of a fringe minority contributes to the stereotype of all Muslims as violent fanatics diametrically opposed to Western cultures and values. This misunderstanding is counterproductive if we are to deal rationally with the challenges facing our world.

One effort that aims to break down these harmful stereotypes about Muslims is Unity Productions Foundation’s My Fellow American, a web-based project that asks non-Muslims to pledge and share a real-life story about a Muslim friend, neighbor or colleague whom they admire. Through the power of social media, the project aims to change the narrative—from Muslims as the other to Muslims as our fellow Americans.

Videos continue to be shared on the website, offering personal testimonies from non-Muslim Americans about Muslims who have positively impacted their lives. One such story was shared by Joshua Stanton, a Rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College and the editor of the journal Interreligious Dialogue, about his mentor Eboo Patel, an Indian-American Muslim who is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit that aims to promote interfaith cooperation.  (Patel won a Common Ground Award last year for his work to promote interfaith understanding and service.) Stanton notes that Patel, who grew up in Illinois, is “more Chicago than Chicago,” undermining the notion of Muslim-Americans as inherently different than their non-Muslim counterparts.

In another video, Indian-American Vindhya Adapa talks about how her interactions with her friend Tuba helped to change her perception of Islam.

Asides from My Fellow American, there are several other programs that aim to provide more complex depictions of Muslims. One of these is Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian sitcom created by Zarqa Nawaz, a Pakistani-Canadian journalist and filmmaker. The series was inspired by Nawaz’s documentary Me and the Mosque and has been running on television since January 2007.

Little Mosque on the Prairie revolves around the Muslim community in the fictional prairie town of Mercy, Saskatchewan. While the series derives some of its humor from exploring the interactions between the Muslim community and the non-Muslim townspeople of Mercy and the contrast between Conservative and Liberal Islamic views, at its core the show is a traditional sitcom that is unique because it is set among an under-represented community. Nawaz has stated that the show is not intended as a political platform and that its primary agenda is to be funny.  She has also stated her belief that comedy is one of the most powerful ways to break down barriers and to encourage dialogue and understanding between cultures.

The show has been extremely successful, both in Canada and internationally. It has won several awards including our own Common Ground Award in 2007. The series was also selected and showcased at the 2009 Dawn Breakers International Film Festival in Zurich.

Shows like Little Mosque on the Prairie and projects such as My Fellow American are countering stereotypical media depictions of Muslims as terrorists or victims. Through these efforts and others like them, Western audiences will be exposed to more complex images of Muslims and become less afraid of a community that is often misunderstood.

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