Since graduating from the Ryerson journalism program in 1992, Zarqa Nawaz has carved out an impressive comedy career. She created the hit CBC show Little Mosque on the Prairie, based on her documentary Me and the Mosque.
The Ryersonian spoke to Nawaz about everything from laughing about Islamophobia to her thoughts on Donald Trump’s election campaign.
Q: You’ve been a journalist, a documentary filmmaker, a TV creator, a writer — how do you identify yourself today in your career?
I think probably as an artist. I consider myself a writer and I cross a lot of genres. [Laughs] Probably a comedy writer.
Q: Pretty much every bio online about you mentions Little Mosque as the piece of work you’re best known for creating. Has that been a blessing or a curse?
It’s been a blessing. No one had any idea what incredible impact Little Mosque would have. No one really cares about the books. I’m working on a memoir, I’m working on a novel. Now all I ever get asked is when will I make the next show. When’s the next show?
Q: What kind of reactions do you get from people who watched the show?
At first, the Muslim community was shocked. They didn’t know what to make of it because they’d never seen something like that on television. So it took the community a while to warm up to the show — about two years — before they realized nothing catastrophic was happening. Because they were so conditioned to only seeing negative portrayals, they were waiting for the ball to drop and the real story to come out and how I was going to, you know, do something dastardly to them. And then when they realized nothing terrible was happening, they came to accept it.
Q: You’ve spoken before about how comedy can foster cultural understanding in a post-9/11 world. What is it about comedy that does that?
I think it makes people lower their guard and laugh and then sort of examine their stereotypes and prejudices, and ask them why they found that funny. In a way that they wouldn’t if it had been serious. I think it’s easy to tell a very difficult subject through comedy because it gets people to reevaluate their perceptions because they can laugh and then think about it afterwards. Like, hey — why was that funny? Why did I laugh?
Q: In both your documentary and your television show, you used Islam to challenge traditional ideas about gender. What kind of responses did you get for that?
I think the Muslim community has now come a long way because when I first started doing that type of work, they weren’t used to it coming from someone who actually was a member of their own community who had a lot at stake. Mostly it would always be from non-Muslims, or from journalists or from outside the community. So people would view this sort of “airing their dirty laundry” with suspicion. But when it was someone who was actually invested in the community, who belongs to the community, who volunteers in the community, who was a mosque-going Muslim, then I think it was different because then it was like, OK, she has something to say and she would also get affected by negative stereotypes so she’s not doing this just to hurt us. She really cares about the community. So I think it took time for them to realize that. I think they realized that if we’re honest and transparent about our feelings and what we’re doing to try to correct those feelings, people are much more supportive.
Q: In the States, Donald Trump’s rhetoric surrounding Muslims has sparked some comedic retorts, like the #MuslimsReportStuff hashtag. What are your thoughts on this U.S. election campaign?
It’s very, very difficult for the Muslim community. Trump has stroked xenophobia and racism, and made it OK to say things that would have been somewhat unacceptable before, even though Islamophobia has been growing by leaps and bounds. But now it’s been translated from just rhetoric to action, on the ground violence against Muslims or people who look like they’re Muslim. We’re hearing more and more reports of violence, harassment, physical assault and murder in the United States against people of colour. Trump has unleashed this racism that’s now considered acceptable in western society. It’s a very difficult situation for minorities in the United States. I was just reading a story today about a family that actually left the U.S. to live in Pakistan because their child was assaulted in elementary school and they just feel like it’s no longer safe. It’s becoming a much more dangerous country to live in as a minority.
Q: Do you find there’s any striking differences between Canadian and American audiences in terms of the way they might digest humour that addresses Islamophobia?
I think that Islamophobia also exists in Canada. We’re fortunate to have a prime minister currently elected that is very different from, say Harper, who really stroked the fans of Islamophobia with the last election, with his anti-niqab policies and his barbaric cultural tip hotline. He wasn’t exactly Trump but he was as Canadian as you’re going to get when it comes to somebody who holds those sort of values. And we were really fortunate that minorities got together and made sure that he wasn’t re-elected. We have a prime minister who’s much more progressive on these issues than Harper would have been. We were very lucky to have dodged that bullet, but the damage that Harper did is still relevant and can still come back. And we still have to be vigilant to make sure that people are not going to continue that rhetoric of racism.
Q: In your documentary and your book you share a lot of your personal life. Did you ever hesitate or feel nervous doing that? Was it essential for your comedy?
What I don’t make fun of is what I would consider sacred, which would be God and Qur’an, or the prophets of God. I mean, those are issues that I do consider sacred. But at the same time, I feel like you can still talk about them in a humorous way. But there’s a difference between talking about things that are funny versus making fun of them or degrading them, or humiliating those things. I think the way you write and talk about issues, makes a big difference. It’s also a matter of power, right? People who are in power, it’s easy for them to make fun of themselves, and when you make the same jokes about a minority when you are the person in power, then it has a different sensibility. That’s what you have to be careful about.
Q: You’ve spoken and written about growing up Muslim in Canada. What was it like going to Ryerson when you did?
I loved Ryerson, it was a great place to learn to be a journalist. At that point, I thought I was going to be a doctor so I had a science degree. So I came to Ryerson with a science degree, never having worked in the arts or having written anything significant. So it was a really great place to discover myself as a writer.
Q: How and why did you make the transition from journalism to television?
I just felt that journalism wasn’t creative enough for me, that I probably should have gone into film school but hadn’t known about that aspect of writing. I needed to write stories, and journalism was probably more of a constraint for me, so I needed to go somewhere I could have more creative freedom. So I made the move from journalism to television.
Q: What do you think it is about comedy that affects people in this way?
You consider Muslims “the other,” yet when you laugh at them, it humanizes them and you realize you have so much more in common with them than you would have realized otherwise, and so you see their humanity. You see them as human beings and you see your own humanity reflected in them. You see that we have universal categories or tendencies, characteristics and they’re all the same. We’re all people and we’re all the same, and we’re just different colours or a different face, but ultimately, at our core, we are just people, with the same foibles.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.