Unlikely hero?

Education key in understanding Islamic faith, Muslim doctor says

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

MARSHALL — Members of Dr. Ayaz Virji’s own community attempted to silence him. Others from a neighboring area called him the anti-Christ. He even received death threats for speaking out. But at his most-recent talk on his Islamic faith, Virji was praised for being an unlikely hero.

Following a trio of speakers, Virji stepped up to the podium in front of about 275 people who had filled the theater at Southwest Minnesota State University on Nov. 13. The silence was deafening as everyone locked eyes and turned their complete attention toward the Muslim doctor as he began to speak.

“Many people tell me what I believe before they hear what I believe because they read it somewhere or they heard it on the news,” Virji said. “I want to emphasize that I don’t think the people of Dawson are bad. I think they’re kind and I think they’re gracious. But I think they’re poorly informed. Even the ones who are protesting, I think it’s just a question of education and a question of understanding — not being disinformed.”

By the end of his talk, it was obvious that Virji’s message had reached audience members — a standing ovation demonstrated that respect.

“I know that what you’re doing is hard, grueling work — draining,” Marshall resident Brannon McCain said during the question-and-answer session that followed. “I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are making our community a better place.”

McCain then referenced the two college students who asked Virji for advice regarding discrimination toward them. Virji had suggested they reach out, speak out and get involved.

“Even despite all that is happening, I still believe we’re in an amazing country,” Virji said. “We need to reach out to others. We are all humans. We have the same problems. We pay our taxes. Our kids don’t listen. We’ve got mortgages. We, as a Muslim community, unfortunately, don’t let people into our hearts as much as we should. And there are so many good people around us who would love to hear and know more. We should be brave to do that.”

Virji used SMSU Students United speaker Ola Abimbola as an example of someone who is making a positive difference by being involved in activities and organizations. Virji encouraged all college students to determine their own destiny.

“We’re still in a country where you can be a doctor — you can do what you want by your own merit,” he said. “You’re here at a university. Unleash your potential.”

McCain went one step further, acknowledging he and many others have not endured discrimination and oppression like many people in minority groups have.

McCain said: “We had two people come up here and ask the question: what do I do when I’m the victim of discrimination? What do I do to protect myself when I’m oppressed within my community? And I want to say, that’s not a question I would ever have to ask as a white man because I don’t experience that in our community. That being said, it shouldn’t fall on them to protect themselves. It should fall on me and the people who look like me — the people who have privilege.”

McCain challenged audience members to stand up and protect people when it happens.

“As we go into the Thanksgiving holiday season and you go and say hi to your racist Uncle Joe, I encourage you to say, ‘Hi, racist Uncle Joe. I don’t agree with what you’re saying’ and not just laugh and nod your head because when you laugh and nod your head, you are doing something wrong. You are giving implicit approval of those things,” he said.

Dawson resident Doug Peterson shared his story of transformation, admitting that he’s grown because of the knowledge and experience he’s gained since election night.

“I’ll be known as Ayaz’s friend who voted for Trump and later, regretted it,” Peterson said.

SMSU English Professor Ruthe Thompson took time at the microphone to emphasize Virji’s earlier point about searching for the truth.

“I teach journalism here among other things, and one of the things that is really important to me — and I would just encourage everyone in the audience to do — is to read around,” Thompson said. “Read broadly. To get at the truth based on fact and logic, you have to be willing to work — like you said — to use your superpower.”

Virji talked about some of the founding fathers and how they respected Islam. He explained how Muslims were persecuted in Mecca before they had established a religion. He pointed out that the Quran named Jesus as one of the more than 124,000 prophets, along with Abraham, Moses, Adam, Jonah and Job and others.

“It names some of them,” Virji said. “We believe each prophet brought one bezel of wisdom. Adam, the first prophet, he came and taught us the idea of forgiveness — that man was going to sin. Moses talked to us about the idea of a law — the importance of a law — for progress, for happiness for peace. When Muhammad came, he represented the entire package — he was a universal man.”

Marshall resident Trudy Madetzke used her allotted time to share good feedback regarding her perspective on the Bible and the Quran.

“In the Quran, which I have read, Jesus is always identified as the same as other prophets,” she said. “And I was indeed, surprised there were many references to Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the Quran. I would say, as a Christian, Jesus was not identified as the Son of God and that’s the difference between Muhammad as a prophet and Jesus as God’s son, according to the Bible.”

Madetzke said she thought it was very unfortunate the word terrorist and the act of terrorism seems to only be linked to Muslim perpetrators, adding her own thoughts on possible motives for seemingly senseless acts.

“Anger is a big issue,” Madetzke said. “I think loneliness is also a big issue and you mentioned that. The other things is that they might not have strong ties to something, like no matter what happens in life, there’s a future in heaven and there’s hope. A lot of people are without hope, so they find no reason to exist and they want to take away other people’s existence, too.”

Virji thanked Madetzke for her comments and added his own.

“When you take hope away from people, you make them hopeless or helpless,” he said. “You produce anger. You produce hostility. You produce terrorists. So if you take a generation of Iraqis or whoever that have been bombed and know nothing but war their entire life, what’s going to happen? It’s not the religion that’s doing that. It’s the circumstance.”

Virji noted that it wasn’t uncommon for extremist groups to take random verses from any book and use it to pervert the religion.

“One can take Quranic verses and cherry-pick them and make it sound like you gotta go kill people,” he said. “I can do that with the Bible, too.”

Of course, there ongoing question is whether or not there are different paths to eternal salvation.

“Islam technically means submission,” Virji said in response to questions from an audience member. “Islam, to me, and if you look at scholarly papers and scholarly opinions, is a very inclusive religion or way of life. I look at religion as a verb, not as a noun. You may say, ‘Hey, I’m Christian.’ And I say, ‘I’m Muslim.’ Then as soon as we do that, we’ve now excluded one another. I say I’m Muslim and this is my group and you’re not part of it. You say you’re Christian and that’s your group and I’m not part of it.”

Virji said he doesn’t look at religion in that way.

“Islam — just like Christianity, just like Buddism, just like atheism, just like humanitarianism — promotes love they neighbor, virtue, honesty, dignity, respect, doing good charity,” he said. “As soon as you include it as a verb, then whoever is doing those actions — it doesn’t matter what you say or believe, if you believe this is the Son of God or not — now you’re part of that group, too. As long as you’re being good, we’re together. So it’s a definition of inclusion.”

Virji talked about the early origins of Christianity and said he found the translation process to be somewhat troublesome.

“Constantine was the first to convert to Christianity,” he said. “Then he held the Council of Nicaea. They worshipped the Greek God Mithra, the sun god — Mithraism. So for us, it was well, that’s an easy, palatable thing. You’re going from worshipping the sun god to the Son of God. Now, isn’t it a coincidence that December 25 was historically, the birth of the sun god?”

Virji said the first English translation of the Bible came in 1589.

“That was a translation from the Vulgate,” Virji said. “Then you get 1607, the King James version, which is then revised in the 1800s and then revised again in 1971 to the RSV (revised standard version). Now, the King James version of the Bible, it’s a fantastic piece of literature. However, the defects and the problems are so grave and so bad, that it required complete overhauling by the Council of 32 scholars of the highest eminence.”

Virji said he cannot help but compare that to the Quran, which he said even atheist historians will say hasn’t changed.

“I’m going to look at these different things and make an assessment based on my best understanding,” he said. “I don’t like to talk about this with other people because it’s a sensitive topic and my advice to other people is to go research it yourself.”

While many Muslim Americans have grown accustomed to defending their religion, especially since 9/11, the Rev. Mandy France experienced that for the first time after she and Virji began speaking out this past year.

“My salvation is secure, so (Virji’s faith) doesn’t have to threaten me,” France said. “It’s OK for me to wear a cross and him to hold a Quran. We can get along and it’s OK to disagree.”

France added she believes in the importance of providing safe places for people to come together and discuss different topics.

“What we’re trying to do here is to educate and start conversations,” she said. “How can we bring people together and create space for people to ask those hard questions of one another?”

Both France and Virji believe values can help bring society together.

“We’re all privileged to be in the greatest country in the world,” Virji said. “The reason isn’t because you’re white or because we have a big army. The reason is our values. It’s that Constitution of ours. That’s why we’re great. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, justice, love, kindness — and the second we lose that, that’s when we are not great.”

SMSU professor Anita Gaul, who was instrumental in getting Virji and France to speak on the campus in Marshall, said she recently heard Minnesota Public Radio broadcast a scholarly interview about the importance of a liberal arts education. She shared the message in an effort to renew hope for the future.

“In his opinion, there are two goals of a liberal arts education,” Gaul said. “Number 1 is to teach people to ask, ‘But is that true?’ Number 2 is to teach people to have empathy for our fellow human being. In a political climate where truth and empathy no longer seem to matter, our speakers were here tonight to teach us about both.”

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