Little Mosque on the Prairie and the Paradoxes of Cultural Translation

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Kyle Conway
Cultural Spaces
  • Toronto, ON: 
    University of Toronto Press
    , February
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


North American media most often frames Muslims as a dangerous threat, trying to undermine society. When cinematic and television productions veer from this representational formula they posit a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” Muslims, which is narrowly constructed within the confines of national interests and security. “Good” Muslims are only those who suffer the consequences of stereotypes about Islam or those who aid in the War on Terror. Scholarship on the representation of Muslims has comprehensively plotted this history (most notably in works by Evelyn Alsultany, Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin, Tim Jon Semmerling, and Jack Shaheen). Other work on these portrayals examines the socio-political consequences of representations in broader international relations (works by Lina Khatib, and Melanie McAlister). Little Mosque on the Prairie and the Paradoxes of Cultural Translation strengthens and productively expands this already rich body of literature on Muslims in popular media by focusing on a show that disrupts audience expectations through comedy and diversity.

Kyle Conway, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa, tackles questions of representation in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie (2007-2012). The show, created by Zarqa Nawaz, revolves around Muslim residents and their neighbors in a small community in the fictional town of Mercy, Saskatchewan. The show expands dominant representational media patterns by including Muslims of all sorts—those who practice piously or not much at all, those with conservative positions and liberal ones. The book explores the transformations of the show over its six seasons, how it cultivates/fosters future global syndication; the creative formulation of the show’s writers, producers, executives, and creator; and conflicting limitations rooted in genre, audience, and resources.

The primary audiences Conway is aiming to reach are those in cultural and translation studies, which shapes the type of questions and concerns he addresses in this book. The important tasks of disentangling media production, circulation, and consumption of the show are forefront. Through thick description and analysis of this domain, he is able to interrogate mediated intercultural communication and the translational process that occurs in the movement from one cultural locale to another. He tells the reader he is a “sympathetic outsider” when it comes to religious studies and that its theoretical concerns are a tangential aim for his main audience. Overall, Conway’s work will be a welcomed addition for scholars of media and religion or Islamic studies. However, in the examination of the show’s navigation of “religion,” which is generally framed within a culture versus belief dichotomy, his peripheral position is revealed since he does not thoroughly engage scholarship on the category (with the exception of one small footnote).

The singular focus of this book enables Conway to address theoretical concerns with greater precision, which will be valuable to scholars of religion. Little Mosque on the Prairie fractures the conventional logic linking Muslims and terrorism, which aligns with viewer expectations and the North American media archive. Previous scholarship had to confront the representational issues in those formulations but Conway is able to move beyond these typical sets of questions. This comes though in his focus on production and the program makers’ roles in media creation. This agent-oriented approach employs interviews with media producers in addition to reading the final product as a “text.” Conway is also attentive to the structural limitations of the sitcom genre and comedy as a means of communication. This form requires the reliance on certain conventions but aids in the creators’ goals of humanizing Canadian Muslims and combatting stereotypes.

Conway’s investigation of the tensions that arise between seeking commercial success and positive audience reception through genre forms paired with didactic media-maker goals of educating viewers about the diversity of Muslims produces the most beneficial concepts for future researchers. He argues that the process of “cultural translation” produces “saleable diversity,” the imposed limits on the range of identities, attributes, and emotions characters can experience. Cultural translation is necessary in the context of the rising visibility of Muslims in Canadian society where seemingly foreign members of the community negotiate, and therefore translate, their placement within space. Humor resolves these contradictions by fostering two things simultaneously: first, revealing that there is a gap between stereotypes and alternatives made visible through comedy, and second, that the vulnerability of laughter serves as a potential catalyst for audiences to interrogate their previous perspectives. The outcome is a product that erases visible signs of difference for the sake of cultural incorporation. He explores how this framing operates in various contexts of the show, such as limits on the range of characters, sentiments, cultural contexts, and their reception. “Saleable diversity” can be productively put to use in examining other representations of minority groups in popular media where emphasis is given to universals rather than difference. This concept also adds another vantage point from which to examine media “Muslims,” similar to the conceptualization of “simplified complex representations” developed by Evelyn Alsultany.

Altogether, Conway provides a great deal for the scholar of religion. His detailed focus on modes of production, distribution, and consumption serve as an effective model for future studies of religion and media. His rich theorization of the subversive function of comedy, the restrictive limits of genre, translational processes, and the construction of mediated identities can certainly be applied in other contexts. The inclusion of the shifting perspectives of creatives and producers obtained through personal interviews will also be valuable to those interested in how interpretations of “religion” inform media-makers. For those who want to understand the diversity of Muslims in North America, this offers a Canadian perspective that is often left out of the equation. Finally, we should certainly add Little Mosque on the Prairie and the Paradoxes of Cultural Translation to the list of key works on Muslims in media, television, and cinema.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kristian Petersen is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kyle Conway is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa.


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