Dr. Virji to speak on his Islamic faith

MARSHALL — Dr. Ayaz Virji never planned on becoming a voice of truth and reason regarding his Muslim ethnicity and Islamic faith, but then the election of Donald Trump happened.

Life had been going along just fine for the Dawson doctor and his family. They’d felt welcomed to the small farming community more than two years ago. But Dr. Virji began to question the true feelings of his neighbors after nearly 60 percent of Dawson residents voted for Trump, as did Lac qui Parle County, where Dawson is located.

Virji took it personally, knowing that those people voted for a candidate who consistently stoked racial tensions, threatened to ban Muslims from entering the United States and even suggested shutting down mosques and forcing American Muslims to be part of a registry.

Dr. Virji’s anger grew over time and he began to feel very defensive about his culture and religion. Though there are about 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States, Virji, his wife, Musarrat, and their three children were the only ones residing in Dawson.

A few weeks after the election, the Rev. Mandy France felt compelled to approach Virji and ask him to consider speaking publicly.

“I believe the only way to fight and overcome Islamaphobia is by education,” France said. “Muslims are being silenced and stereotyped out of fear. I realize that as a white, middle class Christian, I have privilege in society. I chose to use that privilege to a safe space for Ayaz and his family to share their story and faith.”

After giving a few other talks, Dr. Virji is now slated to present “Islam in Post-Trump America: a Muslim physician’s experience in rural America” at 7 p.m. Monday at the Southwest Minnesota State University Fine Arts Theatre.

“Ayaz informed me that Al Jazeera News will be having a videographer there as well,” France said.

The event is free and open to the public.

“I saw Dr. Virji and Pastor Mandy speak in Granite Falls back in May to an overflow crowd,” said Anita Gaul, adjunct faculty for the department of English, Philosophy, Spanish and Humanities at SMSU. “So many people came to learn about Islam, hear about Dr. Virji’s experiences and also to ask questions. Clearly, people want to know more about this topic.”

Gaul called it a “powerful and passionate evening” and invited Virji to bring his message to Marshall.

“Yes, it appeared that some audience members came just to challenge him with hostile questions and accusations, but mostly, the crowd seemed genuinely interested and receptive,” she said. “I think there are more people in this area who want to learn more about Islam, especially in light of recent events and the election of 2016.”

Gaul credits the help of SMSU’s Office of Access Opportunity Success and its Associate Director Michele Knife Sterner for helping make the SMSU event a reality.

“I’m very excited that he will be speaking on campus, and I expect there will be a good crowd in attendance to hear what he has to say,” Gaul said. “There will also be a question-and-answer session at the end, so if there are questions that people have about Muslims or about Islam, there is an opportunity to ask them. That’s what Dr. Virji is trying to do: educate people.”

Virji had been hesitant when he was first approached to speak publicly by France, who serves as Pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran in Bird Island. Eventually, he realized he was perfect for the task.

“In the time leading up to the election and immediately after, I was hearing strong remarks made in the community regarding Muslims,” France said. “Many people were supportive of the anti-Islamic comments President Trump had made. Dr. Virji was my doctor at the time and I knew that he and his family were the only Muslims in Dawson. I was concerned that the anti-Islam rhetoric would impact them negatively.”

France added that she’d heard rumors that Dr. Virji was thinking about leaving Dawson following the the election — an election in which Dawson voted red for the first time ever, she said.

“It was then that I approached the Virji family and asked them to collaborate with me to educate people on Islam and show that inter-religious friendships are positive,” France said. “We did our first talk in March in Dawson. We encountered a lot of protest, but the event itself was extremely positive.”

France said it’s one thing for her to talk about Islam, but it’s completely another to have people who actually practice the faith talk about it.

“I can talk about Islamaphobia, but I’m not on the receiving end of it,” she said. “I knew the Virji family was deeply affected after the election — it’s a small town and word spreads fast. It was my Christian conviction that told me to approach them because when there is suffering and people feel ‘less than,’ we as Christians are called to be there.”

After the first meeting in Dawson, Dr. Virji agreed to speak in Montevideo, where several Bible-wielding individuals were in attendance, shouted Bible verses at him and referred to him as the Antichrist.

Despite the uncomfortable atmosphere, the discord and obvious lack of understanding about his religion only fueled Virji to keep reaching out to people who were searching for the truth about Muslims and Islam. He realized that it was easy for some people to demonize Muslims because they didn’t really understand them.

In a July 1 Washington Post story, Virji said he was angry that people might think he’s a terrorist, that Islam oppresses women or that Sharia Law tells them to cut people’s heads off — none of which are true. But once he got past the anger, he realized that he had the opportunity to create awareness and hopefully mend some wounds. Though there had been a rise in hate crimes since the election, Virji said he felt compelled to continue trying to make a difference, noting, “I’m here because who else is going to do this, if not me?”