A Muslim Comes to Rural Minnesota

This morning the Washington Post tweeted a news alert that said:

When a Muslim doctor moved to rural Minnesota, “it just felt right.” Then the town voted for Trump.

The tweet linked to this article by reporter Stephanie McCrummen. It tells the story of Dr. Ayaz Virji, a graduate of Georgetown University medical school who practiced family medicine in Florida and Pennsylvania before moving to Dawson, Minnesota, in 2014.

Dr Virji and his wife and children found Dawson, a town of 1,400 people, a remarkably welcoming place:

They arrived on a breezy fall day, and he remembered how it all seemed almost corny, from the park with little gnome figurines, to the wide streets named Oak and Maple, to the formidable Grace Lutheran church at the town center. The whole visit felt like one big welcoming parade.

Welcome to our hospital and clinic, where the two other doctors, the nurses and other staff members were lined up to greet them. Welcome to the school, where the principal showed them around. Welcome to the two-block downtown, where there was a butcher, and a bowling alley, and a diner named Wanda’s, and as they walked along, Musarrat noticed something rare. She didn’t feel people staring at her headscarf. They were saying hello and smiling.

Ayaz remembered that it “just felt right.” Wholesome.

Of course, small towns often have trouble attracting doctors, and physicians who move to towns of 1,400 are generally welcomed. But the people of Dawson seemed to go beyond the call of duty in their kindness to their new Muslim neighbors:

When John and Jill Storlien, the local butchers, found out that Ayaz was driving all the way to Minneapolis to get his halal meat, they offered that perhaps they could manage. Their cows came in facing Mecca anyway, it turned out. Ayaz texted them the prayer to say as they butchered, and so one day in a tiny Midwestern town, two Lutherans spoke their first Islamic verses over the carcass of a cow.

The Post story notes that the Virji family lives in the nicest home in Dawson, and the Virjis enjoy travel, with “China, Dubai and New York City…a few of their favorites.” For most of Dr. Virji’s western Minnesota patients, a trip to the state fair in St. Paul counts as exciting travel.

No wonder Dr. Virji wrote:

Is it difficult to practice your faith in a small community where you are the only Muslim family?

Virji: Not in Dawson, where the people are so kind and sincere! We feel very much at home here. True faith is not in words or rituals, but in the heart of people. Dawson residents are the best!

But a shadow fell across the Virjis’ happiness in the form of the 2016 presidential election:

The morning after the election, he was shocked and angry, and when he looked up the local results before he went to work, the feelings only intensified. Not only had Trump won the county, he had won Dawson itself by six percentage points.

By the time he got to the hospital, he was pacing up and down the hallways, saying he hoped people realized that they just voted to put his family on a Muslim registry, and how would he be treated around here if he didn’t have “M.D.” after his name? People tried to reason with him. A colleague told him it’s not that people agreed with everything Trump said, and Ayaz said no, you’re giving them a pass. He told the hospital’s chief executive that he was thinking of resigning, and she told him to take some days to cool off.

The Virjis started feeling differently about Dawson, but did Dawson residents treat them any differently? Evidently not:

[T]he Virjis began feeling differently about the town. They wondered whether the people who had seemed so warm were secretly harboring hateful thoughts or suspicions about them. Musarrat told Ayaz that she noticed more silence from certain friends. Ayaz was stopped on a sidewalk by a woman who said, “Jesus loves you”…

The horror!

…and wondered what would happen if he said, “Muhammad loves you.” Another day, he ran into a patient who told him that a lot of farmers had voted for Trump because of sky-high health insurance premiums, not because of “anything racial,” and please, no one wants you to go.

The assumption that underlies the Post story is that Trump voters must be flawed people–bigoted, ignorant or both. Someone who didn’t begin with that presumption might say that the Virjis’ experience demonstrates that Trump voters are not, in fact, bigoted and ignorant, but that conclusion doesn’t seem to have occurred to either the doctor or the reporter.

The Post story is sometimes laughable in its effort to put a sinister cast on the fact that rural Minnesota (like pretty much all of rural America) voted for President Trump:

On Thursday, he got home from the hospital and went to pick up Maya from school, hurrying along the sidewalk in the bright sunshine and shade of cottonwoods.

“Hi, Dr. Virji!” someone called out from a front lawn.

“Hey!” Ayaz called back to a woman he knew had voted for Trump. “How are you doing?”

He crossed the street and headed toward the school.

“Hi, Dr. Virji!” said a kid who had been over to their house often before the election, but not since.

“Hey there!” Ayaz called back.

It must be tough to be surrounded by haters!

An intern working at the local Lutheran church named Mandy France persuaded Dr. Virji to give a talk about Islam in Dawson. He did so in February. His talk was attended by a remarkable 400 people, and was well received:

People applauded and even stood up, and when it was over, some of them submitted questions to be answered later in the community newspaper.

Some weeks later, Dr. Virji was invited to speak about Islam in Montevideo, a town of around 5,000 not far from Dawson. This time, while the much smaller crowd was generally friendly, several apparently hostile people attended:

[W]hen 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.

This is where the Washington Post enters the story. Dr. Virji accepted one more speaking invitation, in another small Minnesota town called Granite Falls. The Post sent a reporter, Stephanie McCrummen, and a photographer to spend time with the Virjis and cover the Granite Falls appearance. Is it overly cynical to believe that the Post was hoping for an outburst of rural ignorance and bigotry that it could document for its urban, liberal readership?

The Post story strikes a sinister note leading up to the Granite Falls event, with a nurse describing that town as “a little bit rough” and a neighbor of the Virjis offering, somewhat hilariously, the use of a bulletproof vest. The sponsors of the meeting arranged for two police officers to attend.

If the Post’s reporter and editor were hoping for signs of bigotry, they were disappointed. Once again, the Minnesotans in attendance were remarkably friendly and respectful. It was Dr. Virji who started to go off the rails:

He glanced at his outline and made the point that of course ­Islam has its zealots, and he condemns them.

“But that’s not what we’re talking about,” he said. “Because if you say, ‘That’s Islam,’ then that’s like me saying, ‘Well, Christianity is David Kor­esh,’ ” he said, referring to the cult leader.

One fact that shines through is that Dr. Virji, like many Muslims, resolutely refuses to admit that Islam has a problem. Terrorism? Extremism? Backward countries? Barbaric customs? Nothing to see here! Islam is just like Christianity, we all have our bad apples.

He began pacing a bit. People were listening.

“Do you guys know who the LRA is?” he said, referring to the Lord’s Resistance Army, the cultish Ugandan rebel group blamed for the deaths of more than 100,000 people. “How many of you knew about that? I want you to raise your hands.”

Two hands went up.

“How come you don’t know about that?” Ayaz said.

Probably because the Lord’s Resistance Army didn’t bring down the World Trade Center, crash an airplane into the Pentagon, try to destroy the U.S. Capitol, murder 3,000 Americans, and follow up with dozens of terrorist attacks across Western Europe and the U.S.

Dr. Virji lectures in Granite Falls

“How come only Islam has terrorism? The KKK had 5 million members in the 1920s. Lynching of black people was normal. It was routine. Why don’t we look at ourselves, too, as well as others? You have alternative facts? Then go to a different lecture.”

No one was getting up to leave.

They were being polite. After a non sequitur like that, I would have been gone.

He quoted Koran verses to explain how there is no compulsion to convert people to Islam, how extremists who believe that “hate me more than they hate you,” and how Islam means peace, and soon, he began to veer.

Islam doesn’t mean peace. It means submission.

“So Islam is not what you see on TV, okay?” he said. “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.”

His voice was rising. He was getting angry. Mandy looked at him. “Breathe, breathe,” she said.

Dr. Virji continues with a flat misrepresentation that reveals the ignorance underlying his hatred of President Trump:

He began talking about Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had referred to Islam as a “vicious cancer.”

“There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world! Now, according to General Flynn, we have to purge them? ‘We have to purge the world of Islam!’” he said in a mocking voice.

Of course, General Flynn never said any such thing. Referring to al Qaeda and the Islamic State, he said that “Islamism” is a “disease inside the Islamic world,” an -ism like Nazism, Communism, etc. and a “vicious cancer” that “has to be excised.” You can listen to Flynn here. Dr. Virji purports to be teaching lesser-educated Minnesotans, but in fact he is misleading them.

He was far off his outline now.

“You can sense I’m angry about that,” he said. “Wasn’t Jesus angry when he went into the temple and knocked over the tables of the money changers? He was angry. Injustice should make us angry! Okay? I am angry about the election. Because there is injustice there, and I have felt that within my family. And with the burning of mosques? And something like 150 bomb threats to Jewish synagogues? We should think.”

What burning of mosques? It turned out that the bomb threats against Jewish institutions were made by a young Israeli who was paid in Bitcoin by foreign interests or governments, and by an African-American leftist here in the U.S. Virji was wrong to draw a connection between these events and the presidential election. Again, he misleads his audience.

He looked at Duane again, a neighbor he had considered a friend before the election but had barely spoken to since.

“I’ll tell you. After the election, I was angry. And I was angry at my community for what they did. And I was ready to leave. Okay? I was ready to go and say you know what? Not my job. People think I’m a terrorist? I’m outta here. Fine. Find somebody else. The reason I’m here is not because I want to — my faith is very personal to me. I’m here because who else is going to do this, if not me?”

People were just sitting there, listening, not saying anything.

Again, Virji couldn’t resist dragging President Trump into his discussion of Islam:

He moved on to what the Koran says about women, that they should be treated with dignity, and what Trump had said about grabbing women.
“What did he say? What did he say? You know what he said.”

Finally, after an hour and a half of such invective, during which “not one person had left the room,” Mandy France, the intern pastor, “tapped him on the arm and whispered that he needed to finish.”

How did the audience of rural Minnesotans react to Dr. Virji’s tirade? With kindness and sympathy:

“The lady in the back?” Mandy said, and the woman stood up.
“I want to thank you,” she said. “These conversations are very much needed.”
***
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.

Dr. Virji evidently believes that the people of Dawson owed it to him to vote for Hillary Clinton. The Post records this exchange with his wife shortly before the Granite Falls appearance:

“I think some people are coming from Dawson to be supportive,” she offered.

“I know a way they could be supportive,” he said, thinking once again of the vote.

“Maybe they are sorry,” Musarrat said.

“Would be nice if they said it,” Ayaz said. “I don’t think they regret it.”

I don’t know why they would. Apparently Dr. Virji’s experiences have not caused him to re-think his assumptions about people who disagree with him about politics. The Post concludes on a somber note:

Soon it was dark, and their headlights were shining on the “Welcome to Dawson” sign, and the same streets with the same houses and the same people who had seemed to Ayaz so good and so genuine when his family first arrived. In the morning, he would walk to work as usual, and do his rounds as usual, and that’s how he wished things could be.

Only now, arriving back in Dawson, he still felt different, more and more like a stranger in a rural Midwestern town.

He didn’t want to feel that way. He hoped in time he wouldn’t. He turned onto Pine Street, and then he was home.

The people of Dawson seemed good and genuine until they voted for the wrong presidential candidate. Who is the bigot? Who is blinded by prejudice? I see no sign that the Post’s reporter understands that she and Dr. Virji are drawing the wrong lesson from the story they tell, but I suspect that a great many readers will take away quite a different point from the one that they intended.

Dawson’s famous gnome park

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