Dawson’s first Muslim feels like a stranger in a rural town

Ayaz Virji could be forgiven if he’d followed his instinct and moved his family out of Dawson, Minn.

Virgji, the medical director of a local hospital, was upset that his community had voted for Donald Trump, spurred on by the candidate’s portrayal of Muslims as terrorists. Virji was the first Muslim to move to Dawson three years earlier.

Why would his neighbors be so afraid of him and his family?

Give credit to Dawson, specifically Mandy France, a pastor in training at Grace Lutheran, who asked if he’d speak at a meeting to teach people about Islam.

It went well, judging by this WCCO story in March.

But then came another meeting, this time in Montevideo, Minn., described in this weekend’s Washington Post profile of Virgji.

Montevideo was 20 minutes east down the highway, a town of 5,200 people. He’d given a talk on obesity at the hospital there once but otherwise he was a stranger, and when he arrived at the library, about 75 people were waiting, including several men with Bibles. As he began talking about how faith without deeds is meaningless, they began shouting verses at him. They yelled that they were praying for his salvation and called him the antichrist. Their tone became so hostile that Musarrat, who had brought their 9-year-old daughter, moved to the back of the room, closer to the exit. In the days after, people wrote letters to the local paper saying how embarrassed they were at the doctor’s reception, but Ayaz decided he was done with trying to explain Islam to rural Minnesota.

But the invitations to speak kept coming, the Post says, including one in Granite Falls, a town that also went heavily Trump and one said to be “rougher” than Dawson.

A neighbor tried to help. He gave Vergji a bullet-proof vest to wear.

He didn’t want to be angry. He knew some of it was because Trump at times reminded him of people who had bullied him growing up, including high school classmates who called him the n-word and a “taco-eating bastard” and made those years “hellish” and “like a prison,” all of which he had tried to escape by telling himself that one day he was going to be respected. One day he was going to lead a decent and dignified life, which is what he was trying to do when he closed his office door just after 1 p.m. He rolled out his mat, prayed, and carried on with the day.

“So Islam is not what you see on TV, okay?” he told the crowd in Granite Falls. “I know Fox News. It’s not news. It’s the WWF, okay? Don’t use them as my spokesperson. When you say, ‘These people are animals and we have to blow them up,’ don’t say, ‘This is Islam.’ It’s not. And 99.9 percent of us will agree we need to condemn these people and it hurts us even more because they’re saying that God said this? Muhammad said this? Never in a million years.”

People didn’t leave. They also didn’t yell.

He was angry after the election, he said. He was angry at his neighbors.

“The reason I’m here is not because I want to — my faith is very personal to me,” he told the crowd. “I’m here because who else is going to do this, if not me?”

He kept talking for an hour and a half. No one left. No one yelled.

He called on a man with a beard.

“I don’t have a specific question for you, but maybe a comment,” he said. “In the U.S., the way we teach American history, we condense it down so much. We clean it up. We leave out a whole bunch of things. As Christians, we sanitize it even more . . . and you kind of alluded to that. People really need to be honest about our history.”

“I would agree with you, well said,” Ayaz said. “Who’s next?”

He scanned the hands, and called on a man with short gray hair, who stood up.

“Um, I guess where I’d want to go is simply — ” he began, then started over again. “Part of what I want to share with you is this.” He paused for a moment. “I hear a lot of pain from you this evening.”

Ayaz was looking at him. He was listening.

“Um, I’m sorry,” the man said.

He still feels like a stranger in a rural Midwestern town, the Post says.

People shouldn’t have to defend themselves in the face of such hatred.

But they do and they will , perhaps, until the world is a little more Granite Falls and a little less Montevideo.