Lesson on Islam

Dawson doctor presents Islam in Post-Trump America

Photo by Jenny Kirk Dr. Ayaz Virji, a board-certified family physician practicing in Dawson, talks about the religion of Islam among other topics during an event held recently on the campus of Southwest Minnesota State University.

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series on Dr. Ayaz Virji’s talk on Islam in Post-Trump America.

MARSHALL — Dr. Ayaz Virji encouraged people to use their superpowers to help bridge the societal divide in America.

Those superpowers are our brains. Virji, a Muslim physician practicing in Dawson, said everyone should use them to seek out the truth.

“We should use our superpower and we should use our hearts,” Virji said. “Together, it’s a very powerful combination. But we don’t use it. We listen to media and the fake news and these things tell us what to think.”

Roughly 275 people sat on the edge of their seat, waiting for Virji to start his talk on Islam in Post-Trump America on Monday evening in the Fine Arts Theatre at Southwest Minnesota State University.

“We’re in an academic institution — a place where facts matter and we care about them — so we have a sincerity in our approach and we want the truth,” Virji said. “We live in a toxic environment of divisiveness. There’s a lot of Islamophobia. So many people believe that Islam is the cause of terrorism. (U.S. President Donald) Trump says Islam hates us and we should ban Muslims. So the purpose of today’s discussion is to know one another and to dispel myths.”

Virji noted that the prophet Muhammad said the ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr.

“God has not distributed anything among people more excellent than wisdom,” Virji said by memory. “A wise person sleeping is better than an ignorant person’s worshipping all night.”

The audience snickered at the precision of that statement. Then Virji used U.S. Department of Justice statistics to point out how skewed some perspectives can be and how fear often drives racism and hatred.

“Since 1999, Columbine, there have been over 160 mass shootings in this country, killing over 500 people,” he said. “Do you know how many of those involved Muslims? Four percent. So these are the things that we’re fighting. These are the things that bring this talk to where we are.”

When Stephen Paddock recently committed the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, killing 58 people and injuring 500 outside the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nevada, it was not reported as an act of terrorism. But when a non-white individual murdered eight people recently in New York, people were quick to call it terrorism.

“According to the Department of Justice, 94 percent of the terrorist acts are not from Muslims,” Virji said. “So we don’t care about the 94 percent. We only want to stop the 6 percent. The other 94 percent is OK. It’s part of life. That’s America. It’s silly. When we dissect it — when we think about it — it’s just silly.”

Virji acknowledged that a lot of people are misinformed about Muslims and the religion of Islam. He explained that he had no interest in converting anyone and that, in fact, Islam has no interest in conversion either. Virji then referred to a Muslim scholar who had said that there are as many paths to God as there are human breaths.

“This is not an exclusive religion that says, ‘Hey, listen. Either you’re one of us or you’re of the people who are dying or of the people who aren’t saved,'” Virji said. “Islam doesn’t do that. Islam, multiple times, mentions other religions in the Quran.”

Like 99.9 percent of Muslims, Virji said he condemns ISIS, Al-Qaeda and any acts of terrorism. Unfortunately, as it does with other minorities, society seems to group all Muslims together. Virji, however, encouraged people to refrain from stereotyping.

“According to the state department, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world,” he said. “If you take all the label terrorist organizations, there’s 58 of them maximum. Of those 58, there are 200,000 members, so 200,000 divided by 1.6 billion. That’s .01 percent. These guys no more represent me than Dylan Roof represents you, if you’re a Christian, or the Crusades represent you if you’re a Christian, or Joseph Kony represents you — you know who Joseph Kony is, right? He’s the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa who has killed over a hundred thousand people in the name of Christ. So please don’t use the less than .1 percent out there as my spokesperson.”

Early on in the discussion, Virji explained how the “Love Thy Neighbor” series began.

“Being a doctor isn’t just a profession for me,” he said. “It’s a moral calling. That’s always been the case even since I went to medical school. I’ve always been involved in free clinics.”

Along with co-founding a free clinic in Virginia, Virji also provided services at free clinics during his time at Georgetown and Duke as well as in Minneapolis and in Florida throughout his career. It was a big reason why he was drawn to rural medicine and to Dawson.

“In rural medicine, there’s a disparity,” he said. “We have 20 percent of the population, but only 9 percent of the doctors. It’s tough getting physicians, particularly in a population like Dawson, which is only 1,500 people. So for me, it was that calling. If not me, then who?”

Virji likened that to why he was speaking in front of audiences in Minnesota and beyond.

“I don’t want to do this,” he said. “My religion is very personal to me. I don’t like talking about it. But if not me, then who?”

Virji began finding his voice after the election, when he learned that 49 percent of his community — and many of his own patients — voted for Donald Trump, a candidate he found difficult to respect.

“I left a very high-paying job to come to Dawson,” Virji said. “Then the majority voted to put me on a registry? How does that work? My wife and I went 10 rounds with Islamophobia post-9/11. She was chased by some guy with a baseball bat. We went through it. And we promised we weren’t going to let our kids go through that.”

Virji said he was ready to leave. He was angry — and hurt. He even had a job and a house overseas.

“But I stayed because I think the harder road — the narrow road — is the better road,” he said. “Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:13-14: ‘enter through the narrow gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only few find it.'”

The Rev. Mandy France inspired Dr. Virji to speak publicly. She knew he and his family were the only Muslims in Dawson and she had heard a lot of negative post-election rhetoric.

“I took it upon myself to approach them and ask them to collaborate with me to educate people on what Islam is and what it isn’t,” France said. “The goal is just to get to know one another — to look at people as people — and learn about another world religion.”

France said it’s OK if she and Virji disagree and have some differences in their faith.

“I can wear my cross around my neck and I can preach Jesus,” she said. “I can say the Lord’s Prayer. I can say the Apostles Creed. I believe wholeheartedly in the Trinity, but I can, at the same time, honor and respect the sacred space of other people. And that doesn’t have to take away from my relationship with Christ.”

Virji has studied both the Bible and the Quran throughout his lifetime. Growing up in Florida, he said he was the only “off-white” student who attended the Lutheran school in 10 years. After attending a Catholic school for eight years, Virji went to Georgetown for his undergrad education. Later, he went to Duke, which is a Baptist school, for his residency.

“I know the Bible very well,” he said. “I’ve read it many times.”

Virji spoke about the Quran, the central religious text of Islam.

“The Quran is divided into chapters, which are then divided into verses,” he said. “Muslims believe that the Quran was verbally revealed to Muhammad through the angle Gabriel, gradually over a period of approximately 23 years.”

While some people believe the Quran promotes terrorism, Virji said it does not. After reading a passage from the Quran, he then explained that extremist groups, including the KKK and ISIS, are often known to cherry-pick verses from the Bible or Quran.

“Anyone can do that,” he said. “Al-Qaeda does that to recruit people. Terrorists killing in the name of Islam aren’t the 99.9 percent of Muslims. If I wanted to stoke the fire, I could remind people about the KKK. We had 5 million members of the KKK in the 1920s. It was a big group. Lynchings were common.”

Virji also addressed the topic of Muslim women. Most people seem to think the women are oppressed and forced to wear a hijab, but that is not the truth, he said.

“I don’t disagree that in certain countries, women don’t have the right they should, including perhaps our country,” he said. “Look at all these sexual scandals. Look at what’s happening. We have our own dirty laundry. Women have probably been the largest oppressed group throughout all of known history.”

According to Virji, Muhammad said a man should respect in all women the womb that bore him. And while he didn’t necessarily want to speak for Muslim women, Virji noted that the headscarf is more about modesty.

“It’s an external manifestation of an internal idea of modesty,” Virji said. “She’s saying, ‘Stop. Don’t ogle me. Don’t grope me. I am not to be objectified. Yes, I have beauty and yes, I have power with that beauty. I can control men. Look at me as a freely-thinking human being and I can do anything that you can do.”

Compare that to countless women in the west who dress in thongs and bikinis, walk on stage and get judged by men and then decide who is oppressed, Virji said.

“It’s a matter of perspective and it’s a matter of looking at the whole picture,” he said.

The audience appeared surprised when Virji he challenged them to guess whether passages he read were from the Bible or from the Quran. It was as if light bulbs went on.

People can change, Virji said after sharing a story about a Tennessee pastor who led a rebellion against Muslims who wanted to help out a homeless shelter. That pastor ended up apologizing and asked one of the individuals to come speak at his 5,000-pew mega-church.

“When we open our minds, we open our hearts, these are the things that can happen,” Virgi said. “When we use our superpower, amazing things can happen.”