TORONTO — When Alaa Elsayed speaks to churches and civic groups about Islam, he plays a word-association game.
"What's the first thing you think of when you hear the word 'Islamic'?" he asks. "How about 'Muslim'?"
Sometimes, the Calgary imam says, one of the audience members will hesitantly say what many are thinking: "terrorist."
But now, Mr. Elsayed hopes a different word might pop into their minds: "funny."
He – along with millions of other Canadians – has been watching a new show called "Little Mosque on the Prairie," North America's first sitcom about Muslims. Elsayed gave rave reviews to the premiere of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's show about a Muslim community in a small, midwestern town, and he's eagerly awaiting the second episode Wednesday.
"A lighthearted comedy that portrays the Muslim community in a manner that is evenhanded is definitely a welcome change from hearing about Muslims as terrorists, as jihadists," Elsayed says. "This is a great tool for people to learn about Islam in a language they can understand, which is comedy. Also, it's a great indicator that Muslims are an integral part of this community – this is who we are, so accept our differences, not just tolerate them."
Though the show isn't airing in the US except in a few border states, hopes are high there, too.
"We need something to show that Muslims are human," says Kamal Nawash, founder of the Free Muslims Coalition, an anti-extremist group based in Washington, D.C. "I'm hoping it ends up being something like 'Seinfeld' – a show made up by Jews where the whole show is based on humor. It puts life in perspective; it shows people that we're all the same at the end of the day."
Rather lofty expectations for a 30-minute show described by its creator, Zarqa Nawaz, as "a very standard character sitcom."
Ms. Nawaz, a respected Muslim filmmaker who lives in the prairie town of Regina, says her main goal in writing "Little Mosque" was to create a funny, hit show. She seems to have succeeded, at least in the early going. The 8 p.m. pilot episode garnered nearly 2.1 million viewers last week, big ratings for Canada. The top-ranked home-grown sitcom, "Corner Gas" – which coincidentally is also set in a small prairie town – regularly draws 1.6 million viewers.
The first episode introduced viewers to the close-knit Muslim community, in the fictional small town of Mercy, and to the local non-Muslims who regard their neighbors with a mixture of trepidation and tolerance. In the second episode, the new imam, a handsome young man newly arrived from Toronto, sparks a battle of the sexes when he decides to erect a barrier between men and women in the mosque.
"I hope it will open up a door to another community, so people can realize this community has the same foibles and quirks as any community does," Nawaz says, acknowledging that her show is, perhaps, not just another sitcom. "Laughter is a universal language."
The show's producer, Mary Darling, is pitching it to US networks. "We actually think it can do something in the world," she said.
"Little Mosque" certainly represents a change from how Canada's 600,000 Muslims usually see themselves in the media since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In Canada, tensions were heightened by the arrest last summer of 17 Toronto-area men charged with planning a terrorist attack.
But show doesn't shrink from portraying the realities of a post 9/11 world.
In the first episode, a young Toronto lawyer gives up his practice to become Mercy's new imam, but gets into hot water at the airport.
"Don't put Dad on the phone," he tells his mother on his cellphone as he waits in line. "I've been planning this for months, it's not like I dropped a bomb on him. If Dad thinks it's suicide, then so be it. This is Allah's plan for me."
He's promptly whisked off by security, who don't believe his protestations of innocence.
"If my story doesn't check out, you can deport me to Syria," he says, a sly reference to the plight of Maher Arar – a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was arrested during a stopover in the US and deported to Syria, where he was tortured. The US acted on Canadian intelligence that Canadian officials recently admitted was inaccurate.
Asad Rahman, a Toronto photographer, says he didn't buy the airport scene: "I don't think any Muslim would really joke about terrorism in an airport."
But he's hopeful that the show will have a positive influence, both on how non-Muslims view his religion and on how Muslims see themselves. "At least somebody is brave enough to bring some humor to this sensitive religion," says Mr. Rahman, a coordinator for a gay Muslim group.
Not every Muslim is a fan, of course.
Tarek Fatah, spokesman for the progressive, Toronto-based Muslim Canadian Congress, says he thought the jokes fell flat.
"It was a tremendous lost opportunity," he says. "I can imagine non-Muslims watching this and saying, 'my God, these people are bizarre.' "