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Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian TV Comedy

February 10, 2007

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I wonder how the planners of the Little Mosque, a new TV comedy series, decided to locate Mercy, the mythical inter-faith community where this story takes place, out on the Canadian prairies? Did they know that Regina, Saskatchewan is said to be home to the oldest mosque in North America, built 150 years ago. (This record applies to modern times; we often forget about the much earlier African Muslim immigration of up to 700 years earlier.)

In any case, now as then, few of us associate the Canadian prairies with Arabs and other immigrants, especially Muslims. But of course, the inhabitants of Canada's prairies have heard about 9/11. And, like Americans, they are nervous about newcomers.

It is this anxiety combined with the personalities of a community of Muslims in this small prairie town that furnish the lines and laughs for this new comedy series. Anything and anyone is game for a laugh. Why not Muslims? Especially when interfaith dialogue and scholarship seem to be failing.

This comedy series appears to be an outgrowth of standup comedy routines, mainly by a new generation of young Arab and Muslim entertainers on the comedy scene in recent years, and the talent of Muslim-Canadian writers like its creator, Zarqa Nawaz.

Even so, I was a bit apprehensive when I first learned about Little Mosque. Viewing clips of the weekly program on YouTube, I immediately liked it. It is tasteful, well acted, and funny. Some of the lines seem to come straight out of the Arab American Comedy Festival.

 Little Mosque on the Prairie  has the requisite characters: Fatima, a Black Canadian who waitresses at the local deli; the blustering but harmless Baber, a new immigrant critical of anything and anyone White, Sara, a convert to Islam who works for the town's lady mayor and is married to Yasir, the community leader. They have a hip, pretty daughter, Rayyan. (Of the women, some cover their heads and some don't.) Into their midst comes the handsome bachelor Amaar; he's been hired as the Imam of the new mosque. Then we have a benevolent Christian, Rev. McGee, always ready to step in as mediator between the sometimes-bumbling Muslims and the suspicious white folks and incompetent police. It helps, I think, that many of the actors seem to be of Asian origin if not Muslims themselves. (Director Nawaz, born in the UK, moved to the Canadian prairies after her marriage.) They play characters who are cute and flirtatious, naive, conciliatory, aggressive, isolationist, provocative, and angry.

I guess Little Mosque falls into the genre of sitcom, 'situation' or 'family' comedy. It plays on misconceptions--not only those about Muslims-- and fears that we all recognize. The closest we have in fictional writing to 'Little Mosque' is the new novel Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, by Mohja Kahf where we find some of the same absurdities created by being Muslim in America. The humor in Kahf's novel has not yet hit home with American readers, although I could easily see it as a screenplay.

Political satire, although little recognized beyond its borders, has become a hallmark of modern Canadian culture. Perhaps the development of Little Mosque is an extension of Canada's deep-rooted quality satire. Yet, Little Mosque unquestionably is a breakthrough in political terms. It speaks to the universal, not only in its humor but also through its characters and the events they encounter. From the clips I reviewed, the foibles and fears that Little Mosque on the Prairie builds on are as American as they are Canadian, British and European.

The series, although widely reviewed in the US media, did not emerge from that culture where, we are told, American networks and administrators are desperately trying to win the Muslim public. I doubt if an American network will pick it up. Somehow Americans seem too attached to violence to work with something like this.

What about the rest of the clash-of-civilization world? I am particularly curious to see how viewers in Arab and Muslim countries will react. Having lived in many of those lands, I cannot imagine Islam associated with comedy entertainment. TV in the Gulf States, Syria, Algeria, Egypt address Islam in their abundant educational and spiritual programs. If they should care about difficulties Muslims face in the West, they can watch  deadly serious US (propaganda) documentaries--some State Dept-funded --laden with measured opinions and professorial conclusions--almost all by non-Muslims--along with predictable testimonies by US Muslim citizens, all predicated on the myth that our life began on 9/11.

We wait to see how, after a score of weekly episodes, if Little Mosque can reach beyond the clichéd sources of tension and conflict offered in the early episodes. What will be left to learn about these folks in Mercy, Saskatchewan, after we have run through the stereotypical airport scene, the gay swimming instructor, hijab shopping, and abundant 'explosives' metaphors? Surely there is a limit to the terrorism-related metaphors the series' producers are currently building on. Then the show's charm and talent will be put to the test. I hope they succeed.

You can view dozens on clips from the series on YouTube. Or you can go to CBC TV Little Mosque.

[ Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian TV Comedy ]

That Democracy Problem… Again

January 15, 2007

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

With our thoughts turning to Martin Luther King's legacy today, I can't help wonder where King would stand on the need for popular protest in 2007.

As far as US foreign policy goes, surely this is a time for massive protests to demand change. Can we really leave it to our politicians to make a radical change in line with new public knowledge and sentiment about Iraq and other adventures?

The recent election wasn't enough, it seems. If this democracy works at all, we have to find other ways to implement it. The majority view on Iraq seems to be that American occupation of Iraq must end.

Many say that the election in November of more Democratic Party candidates to Congress and the Senate was the people's way to telling their leaders what they wanted, namely 'The occupation had to end and the troops had to come home'. With a majority in both the Senate and the House, in charge of key committees, our Democratic reps now have their chance. "Cut off war funds. Find a political solution. Let Iraqis rule themselves." In theory the Democrats could insist on a new policy.

To support a new direction we were handed a well-articulated formula--The Iraq Study Group Report. Compiled by a bi-partisan committee of experts and politicians, it spelled out necessary steps to address the deep problems the US finds itself in over Iraq. If you read the report, you may have felt as surprised as I was at its intelligent approach. The recommendations seemed reasonable and doable. Bring Iraq's neighbors into the dialogue, it advocated; get the Israelis and Palestinians sitting down to hammer out a real solution, it stressed; find bipartisan Iraqi leaders to bridge differences among themselves, it demanded; set a clear date for US troop withdrawal, it advised. The report appeared to have the stamp of a wiser Bush (the elder) as well as very experienced leaders, including members of the US military.

For two weeks, our press debated some of the report's main points. Then discussion came to a halt. With that, my own hopes for an intelligent new foreign policy and some respite for all the Middle East peoples evaporated. The much-lauded report was, in the end, a mere 'show' of democracy. The 'experts' debating its merits were not the same men who held the cards. They could only offer us an appearance of democracy.

Last week, the reality was exposed. The press had leaked most of the details well before the White House, announced America's new Iraq policy. There would be more troops. Israel would not engage with the Palestinians. And the US would not seek assistance though dialogue with Syria and Iran. There would be mo timetable. Democrats responded with anger and mild threats.

The entire nation dutifully tuned in on Jan 10th to hear the US head of state read his pplan for Iraq. It was as if that high level list of recommendations had been a myth. It seemed the election of dozens of anti-war legislators never happened. What was the basis for Bush's policy proposal? Who really had crafted it? And does the president expect he can implement it without Congress's approval?

This seemingly foolish, doomed plan did not garner the same degree of debate in the media that the Study Group's proposals did. Has the opposition in Congress melted away? Are the Democrats in a huddle quietly devising their strategy to thwart the plan? Or is Congress--and therefore our democracy--actually impotent on an issue of this magnitude?

What alternative recourse does a democracy have, especially if the newly elected opponents of continued engagement in Iraq will not be able to stop this plan? Martin Luther King Jr. was able to join his civil rights agenda and mobilize his forces with those of the opposition to the Vietnam war. There are many parallels between the quagmire in Iraq and the failure in Vietnam.

Can the protests be repeated today, without King?

[ That Democracy Problem… Again ]

At The Expense of Democracy

December 18, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Hamas leaders have announced they will not participate the in the Palestinian elections called by PA president Mahmoud Abbas. Can you blame them? They did it the right way a year ago after many hard, hard years of building up their party in local communities, addressing on-the-ground needs of Palestinians as well as articulating a reasonable political platform for a new state. Hamas is not a threatening 'Islamist' party but a party built on supporting popular resistance to a horrendous, disabling occupation strategy.     Over the years, Hamas appealed not only to Muslim citizens enduring the disabling effect of Zionist occupation and a corrupted Fatah Palestinian administration. Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike understood the principles of the Hamas Party and turned to it as their confidence in Fatah was eroded.      Moreover, the rise of the Hamas Party was a gradual, maturing process of more than 15 suffering years. Although the American public may have been surprised at their victory in the national election last year, Palestinians were not. Nor was Israel, whose agents and military know everything than is going on the in 'prison' that is Palestine. For a decade, Hamas had been winning in key university and local elections. On their side, Hamas was not new to government either. The West may hear of Hamas only in the context of conflict (a status Israel prefers). In reality, the movement is a sophisticated local level organization and a mature political party.     Unlike some guerrilla organizations who concentrate on military resistance, Hamas early on formed itself into an administrative structure. One of the reasons for its recent political success was its ability to address the daily needs of citizens and to organize communities in crisis as well as formulate an appealing ideology.  In any case, the world knows that their victory in the last election was earned fair and square.     The shameful, cowardly, bullying response of the occupier and of Washington is also well known. They declared Hamas 'outlaw'. Government funds and aid was frozen so that they could not administer. Israel stepped up assassinations of its leaders. Then Israel actually kidnapped at least 14 of their parliamentary members. Kidnapped an elected body!!      As the Chilean dictator is buried this week, we are reminded of the words of the American Secretary of State who hailed the military overthrow of the democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, in 1973. Representing US policy in Chile, he said: "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people…". How many more democracies will we destroy for the sake of our stingy definition of democracy? [ At The Expense of Democracy ]

Eerie Silence in North Iraq

November 20, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The term "Turkmen" means little to most western people, even those here who think they are up on Iraq ethnography. This is because Turkmens have not figured in media reports for reasons that will become clear. But watch for it. Iraqi Turkmen will soon demand world attention. Iraq, for outside observers is increasingly a land of ethnic and death statistics, usually in the context of the current conflict.

More and more, Iraq is debated in terms of the Sunni-Shia-Kurd formula, as if Kurd were not themselves populated by sunni and shia devotees. Forgotten are the once romanticized Marsh Arabs of the south. (For the most part, they have moved into the cities.) Christians are also set aside, as are Iraqi Jews. Iraq's Christians represent probably the earliest Christian community anywhere, and along with Iraqi Jews, demonstrate the long history of multi-faith co-existence in this part of the world. Iraqis had rightly been proud of that.

Today, upheavals resulting from the US invasion in 2003, from Zionist penetration of Iraq, and from the breakdown of civil order, create new and fiercely protected divisions. Christians are departing, continuing the exodus begun in the early 1990s. Jews are little heard from; if anything their numbers are increasing as Israelis, some of them of Iraqi origin, return to purchase homes and land and engage in business, if not settle here immediately.

While a terrifying power struggle and polarization goes on between Sunni and Shia in the country's center--around Baghdad, home to more than 25% of the nation's people--Iraqi Kurds, with Israel's help, are consolidating their expansion and hold in the north. They have largely escaped the upheaval across Iraq, protected in three autonomous northern governates which are somehow sheltered from the deadly forces unleashed across the rest of Iraq after 2003.

While the north 'appears' stable (as far as Kurdish-speaking Iraqis are concerned), there are troubling signs of an ethnic cleansing underway. Here we return to the Turkmen Iraqis. They number close to 3 million:--12% of Iraq's people. While press attention focuses on Sunni-Shia battles, Iraq's Turkmens face a campaign of discrimination that could become very ugly and costly. Tel-Afar, a Turkmen-speaking majority Iraqi city was subject to bombardments and a crushing siege by US forces. According to Iraq Turkmen Front spokesman Orhan Ketene, "This was instigated by Kurds who called in American firepower on the claim that the city harbored foreign terrorists". Two yars ago US air and land assaults on the scale of Falluja were carried out in Tel-Afar. A city of more than 300,000, it remains under military siege, crippled and little heard from. This, say Turkmen survivors and Ketene, is part of new Kurdish campaign to extend their sway and dominance westward, beyond their traditional governates of NE Iraq.

As troubling as the terrorizing of Tel-Afar is, we also see signs of a Zionist-type settlement by Kurds in the coveted city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk is targeted as a new center for Iraqi Kurdistan. Until recently, the city was multi-ethnic, although it is identified as the center of Turkmen Iraqi society and economy. For the past 3 years, Kurds have been moving into the city at an increased pace, frightening the Turkmen residents. As with Israeli 'settlement' in the West Bank, this is a strategy of "changing the facts on the ground". Assassinations against Kirkuk's Turkmen families have begun. Fear and tension are rising. Because the city is center of the important Kirkuk oil fields, it is a major economic prize and Kurds do not hide their ambitions for the city.  Kurds, backed by Zionist and American elements, are well armed and powerfully placed in the Iraqi government. Turkmens say the ongoing settlement of tens of thousands of new residents, all of Kurdish origin, is in anticipation of a referendum on the city's fate in 2007. With a majority Kurdish population, the city could become an official Kurdish territory. It is a frightening prospect for Iraq's Turkmens.

How Turkey, long an antagonist to Kurdish sovereignty will react, no one knows. It could be brought into the equation if Iraqi Turkmens are further threatened and find no alternative force to protect them. They say they have been unable to interest the Occupation Authority in their fate and their rights.

With the Americans hardly able to protect themselves and with the city of Baghdad out of control, US support for Turkmens appears unlikely, especially when Washington would be unwilling to confront the Israeli partners of Iraqi Kurds. American troops will one day depart. Now or after some years, it would not undo the wickedness their arrival planted.

[ Eerie Silence in North Iraq ]

Lynne Stewart's Victory

October 17, 2006

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

They were energetic and vocal on this early Monday morning (October 16, 2006) in downtown Manhattan. Yet it was palpably not a cheerful group that made its way across the city square to the US Federal courthouse.

Six TV crews crowding around the white haired woman were not from mainstream press but from community rights organizations. Individuals behind her held banners calling: "Free Lynne Stewart", Justice for Lynne", "We Love You Lynne", and "Win Lynne Win".

Civil Rights attorney Lynne Stewart made a short speech thanking supporters--those 2-300 who eschewed work that morning to give witness to her ordeal. She assured the crowd of her struggle, then slowly made her way to court. Along the route, she reached out to grasp hands of well-wishers, recognizing many in the crowd. Then she moved a few more meters, arm in arm with her husband Ralph, a retired schoolteacher and union organizer. Three of their fourteen grandchildren pressed close to her side.

The crowd passed police barriers and guards that now encircle every American courthouse. Office workers, unaware of this historic moment, rushed past, uninterested. At the courthouse gate, we found extra security guards posted--'in case of trouble'. The crowd clearly was reluctant to let Lynne and her husband proceed forward, even though they knew she must. They knew, as Lynne herself did, that she might be taken from the courtroom in shackles, never to see these streets again, forbidden to see even her grandchildren. US government prosecutors requested a 30-year sentence! At 67, this meant the rest of her life in prison.

"I brought my medications and my books to the courtroom with me today", Lynne announced to her well-wishers. She tried to smile. If the judge this morning followed the government's directive, she knew that she might be escorted straight to a prison cell.

 Two years ago, this well-known civil rights attorney with a long and distinguished record for aiding the poor and voiceless, was found guilty by a US federal court of aiding 'terrorists'. In this case, it was her own client Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman whom she had visited in prison where he is serving life.

Lynne Stewart has been a vocal defender of civil rights all her life. During the many months between the time of her conviction and her sentencing she refused to do what most fearful citizens awaiting sentencing would, i.e. lay low and try to appease the government. No. Lynne Stewart traveled to every corner of the USA speaking to community groups and college students about the erosion of American civil liberties in recent years and the injustice being directed to her.

Stewart was willing to become a martyr. She would cross the country, speaking wherever she could, warning fellow Americans how the current (Bush) administration had eliminated civil liberties and eroded constitutional protections.

Behind Stewart's conviction is the issue of the government's invasion of attorney-client privilege. This had been a sacred right in American law: namely that any exchange between an attorney and his client is private and protected. After the imposition of the first US anti-terrorist laws in the mid-1990s, the government began to wiretap attorneys' conversations with their clients. Thus the 'evidence' on Lynne's exchange with Abdul Rahman.

When Stewart herself was charged as 'abating terrorism', it was a very serious matter. Lynne took up the challenge of her defense arguing that the evidence was obtained illegally. "This is a constitutional issue," she said to me several years back in one of our many radio interviews. "This is not just about me. I am challenging the government's invasion of an attorney's rights and the erosion of our Constitution that protects this." Not only did Lynne appear on my program and other alternative media. The legal professional across the country saw her challenge as a test case for the Constitution. Thus, her struggle began to receive wide attention. She spoke out forcefully. Legal experts closely followed the case.

How was it that, in a case of terrorism, the most serious of all legal issues in the USA today, Stewart was traveling across the country addressing public gatherings. "I have two sons, both successful, and they were able to meet my half million dollars bail. So I am not in a cell. And I am going to use my freedom of movement to speak out about these injustices.

"The government has said I cannot practice law, the core love in my life--I am disbarred during the time the case is being heard. So I intend to use my 'time out' speaking wherever I can about my case. All Americans must be informed how our government is depriving us of our rights."

I've worked with Ms. Stewart since the mid 1990s when we profiled on my radio program the US government's use of 'secret evidence'. Most of those cases involved Muslims and Arabs. Stewart and a handful of attorneys successfully defended those accused men when government prosecutors had withheld evidence on the claim that it was too sensitive to share with the court. They forced the government's hand, revealing that in fact the 'secret evidence' was baseless.  It was a victory.

Then came September 11, 2001. New anti-terrorist laws were enacted and a new government aggressively prosecuted people on the slightest suspicion. Some of those men acquitted in the phony secret evidence charges were back in jail. Thousands of Muslims were apprehended; hundreds of thousands were questioned by FBI and other security officials; many were deported secretly without trial, and most of the few who were able to mount a defense were convicted. It was and remains a very tense and troubling atmosphere for Muslims in the USA.

In Lynne's prosecution, the government reached beyond Muslim victims. It targeted any attorney who dared to defend a terror suspect. It threatened that they too could face possible imprisonment. This was another reason for Stewart to fight back... and win.

The case had a chilling effect in the legal profession. Attorneys who had once defended Muslim suspects had already stepped back from taking their cases. Some even distanced themselves from Lynne when she dared to challenge the government.

As the 'war on terrorism' expanded, the political atmosphere across the USA grew less tolerant. The government has managed to thwart attempts to apply the rule of habeas corpus for the Quantanimo captives and others accused of association with al-Qaeda or terror. This mood was not a promising one for Lynne Stewart.

She had been extraordinarily brave in speaking out. She summoned extraordinary energy to fight back. With the result that thousands began to rally in her favor. Over 1,200 letters were written to the judge attesting Lynne's fine character and her life of service. Defense funds were raised. Stewart herself wrote a lengthy letter to the judge explaining her actions and asking for mercy.

Something worked.

At 2 pm yesterday afternoon, Lynne Stewart emerged from the court to be met by hundreds of cheers and a now expanded national media.

The judge had been extraordinarily responsive. He handed down a 28-month sentence: two years and 4 months. It was a victory. "Heck, I can do that standing on my head," was Lynne's tearful although smiling response.

Moreover, Lynne does not have to serve this sentence until her appeal on the original charge is settled. That will take another year, perhaps longer. So Lynne is gearing up for another court battle. Forty-eight hours later she attended an ifthar dinner in Brooklyn and gave a rousing speech to the crowd.

Stewart's is one of the few victories in the long struggle to restore democratic rights in the USA. Citizens must seize it and follow this woman's courage.

Details of the case are available on www.LynneStewart.org.

[ Lynne Stewart's Victory ]


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