A Muslim In Rural, White Minnesota On How To 'Love Thy Neighbor'

Jun 16, 2019
Originally published on June 20, 2019 1:15 pm

Dr. Ayaz Virji was a Muslim living in small-town, white America.

He had left a good job in a leadership position at a successful hospital in Harrisburg, Penn., in order to practice medicine in a rural, underserved area.

Virji says he "had the BMWs, the nice house, but it wasn't enough for me, I wanted to do more." Rural America faces a shortage of doctors, with many residents forgoing care and saying locations are too far away. "So I felt like I should do something about that. And it was back to the idea: If not me, then who?" he says.

He moved with his family to Dawson, Minn., in 2014. As far as he knew, they were the only Muslims in town. Virji describes the small city — population 1,500 or so — as filled with "very gracious" people who welcomed the family to the community.

"People there are kind, you know, many of them are far better than I am as a person."

But something seemed to change when Donald Trump started whipping crowds into a frenzy with anti-Muslim rhetoric. For Virji, the 2016 election was a turning point. He wondered how his neighbors, who had been so welcoming, could vote for someone who said that "Islam hates us" and had proposed a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

Mandy France, who was training to be a local pastor at the time, invited Virji to give a lecture about his faith. He ended up giving a series of talks about Islam to his neighbors and people in surrounding communities in 2017. Virji wrote about the experience in the book Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor's Struggle for Home in Rural America. He talked with NPR's Michel Martin.

Interview Highlights

On initial backlash

I'd say that the biggest thing that I remember that bothered me the most, and probably still does, is that when we decided to do the lecture, when I decided, listen, I'm going to put aside my own anger. I said, listen, we're going to do something good and put these lectures on — that people in my own community protested.

Ayaz Virji moved with his family to a small city in Minnesota. They were the only Muslims in town. Virji gave a series of talks about Islam.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

They said that a Muslim shouldn't be allowed to speak out publicly. How can you say [that]? You know me. I'm the town doctor, and I know you guys as patients. And if that [sentiment] was here now, then it must have been there before. It was just waiting for the opportunity to surface. ...

So when [Mandy] first came to me I was myself not that interested because I was really angry about what had happened. That my own neighbors and friends voted for the guy who wants me on a registry and who wants to ban Muslims.

You know, what did I do? I don't hate anybody. I didn't have to actually be here in rural America to begin with.

On continuing the talks in other communities

We gave the first talk and it was interesting. A lot of support; also some backlash. Hate mail and things that came after that as well. But what happened then was Mandy and I started bringing the talk to other communities.

And many times it was wonderful and people were very supportive. There were other times ... I remember one guy called me the Antichrist. "It doesn't matter what you do, you're the Antichrist." And OK. I tried to reason with him but it didn't work. But we just kept going.

On being considered an exception, a "minority who is different"

I think the idea is the message applies to people or these groups or minorities in general, but we have our own token, you know, minority who is different.

And I remember going and visiting a patient in the hospital one day. I was just talking to the nurse and just made a comment, you know, "politics are so divisive these days." And she overheard that. I'm here at the bedside taking care of her, she just had an appendectomy, and she said, "Well you know why we have to get rid of these people from North Africa? What religion are they?"

And she said, "Well they're Muslims. We have to get rid of them."

I said, "Well, do you know that I'm a Muslim?"

Then her jaw hits the ground and says, "Well I hope you know I don't see you that way."

I said, "Well you should see me that way. I don't try to hide it." And then she's struggling with what to say and then she says, "Well, it's OK because you were born here. You weren't born over there."

I stopped the conversation, but I wanted to say, "No. I was born in Africa. That's where I was born, in Kenya. I was not born here."

But of course we diverted the conversation, this was not the right place to have it. But I think that people will look at me as maybe not even in that group and say, "Oh well, he's different. That doesn't apply to him."

On what the talks accomplished

I think we opened the narrative to change and that's what we did it for. If there were some people on the fence who just didn't know because they were scared, then we were able to say, "Listen, this message, love thy neighbor, is for all of us. It's a message of inclusion."

And if you look at all of the major world religions, they all have the virtues of love and kindness and compassion and justice at their core. And the deeper dive you take into somebody else's religion or value system the more you see your own. And I think that the amount of people who have come to us and said, "Listen, you really opened my eyes," has made an impact. At least I hope.

On moving his family to Abu Dhabi

I don't see it as leaving. Actually, I still practice in Dawson and I practice now between Abu Dhabi and Dawson. We decided to make this change at the end of the day because it was a very good opportunity and also for us to reconnect with family. So my family lives in Dubai overseas.

But if people ask me, what do you call home, I'll still say Dawson. I still consider that my home. ...

I would say that the Trump phenomenon made the decision easier. I suppose it wasn't the only aspect of it, but I can't tell you that it didn't have an effect.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On this program and, frankly, many similar programs in recent years, we've talked a lot about differences. Why is the country so polarized? Why is there so much anger? Is it because people live in their own bubbles and don't know each other very well?

Well, after the 2016 presidential election, Dr. Ayaz Virji decided to try to bridge those differences in his own way. He was the chief of staff at the local hospital in Dawson, Minn., population 1,500, and he couldn't believe that many of his neighbors, his patients, the same people who'd welcomed him and his family as the only Muslim family to their town just a few years before had voted for a man calling for a Muslim registry and to make it harder for Muslims to immigrate.

He thought about moving. Instead, he decided to dig in and talk to his neighbors about his faith. He's now written a book about that experience and what happened next. It's called "Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor's Struggle For Home In Rural America." And he's with us now from our bureau in New York.

Dr. Virji, thanks so much for talking with us.

AYAZ VIRJI: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First, I wanted to ask you why you moved to Dawson to begin with. I mean, it was almost like a spiritual experience, I might say, right - like a calling.

VIRJI: I think so. So I was mid-career as far as being a family physician at that time. I was a high leadership position at a successful hospital in Harrisburg, Pa. I had the BMWs, the nice house, but it wasn't enough for me. I wanted to do more. And if you look in rural America, we really have a lack of medical providers. We have about 20% of the population but only about 9% of doctors. And it was back to the idea of, if not me, then who?

MARTIN: And you were saying in the book that it was almost like a fairy tale existence for three years.

VIRJI: You know, initially, yes, people were very gracious. And they are. People there are kind. Many of them are far better than I am as a person and, you know, generous and what have you. I think the politics of hate and fear really brought out the worst least common denominator among people. So then we started hearing stuff like, the Virjis shouldn't be allowed to put up Christmas decorations because they're not Christians. And it's, like, well, we've done this our entire life, you know? I've had a Christmas tree my entire life.

MARTIN: So you write about how your friend Mandy, who's training to be a minister, since been ordained as a minister in the Lutheran...

VIRJI: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...In the Lutheran tradition, suggested, you know, that you give a talk and explain, like, talk about Islam, talk about your faith, educate people about it that - what? I mean, talk about some of the resistance that you got.

VIRJI: Yeah. It was a Grace Lutheran event. They put the advertisements up as, you know, Muslim speaker coming to talk about Islam or what have you. There was so much backlash that they had to tear all those advertisements down and rebrand it as a Christian event featuring, you know, Dr. Ayez Virji as a guest or something like that. They had to take the - you know, the whole concept of a different religion or a Muslim out of it.

In addition to that, we were renting the school auditorium. So many people had protested it that the school board actually came to Grace Lutheran and said, listen, we've had to actually deliberate so many times on this that we want you to now pay us for our extra time on this.

MARTIN: They wouldn't let you use the AV system.

VIRJI: Yeah. They pulled that at the last minute. It was like, what else - why are you doing this, you know? What's so - am I that scary? What are you scared of?

MARTIN: So what happened?

VIRJI: So we gave the first talk, and it was interesting. A lot of support, also some backlash. But what happened then was Mandy and I started bringing the talk to other communities. Many times, it was, you know, wonderful, and people were very supportive. There were other times where people were - you know, I remember one guy called me the Antichrist. It doesn't matter what you do. You're the Antichrist. And I'm, like, OK. So - you know, and I tried to reason with him, but it didn't work. But we just kept going.

MARTIN: One of the points that you try to make, though, in your talks is that a lot of immigrant doctors are willing to serve in these areas that other people have not been - not just immigrant people of color - like, people from backgrounds that...

VIRJI: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Don't match up...

VIRJI: Sure.

MARTIN: ...With the people who have lived in those communities. And so you made that point. Did it resonate?

VIRJI: I hope so. We have to start making the arguments and saying, listen - no, brown people, black - we're not the problem. We're all like everybody else. The problem is self-righteousness, and bad people will do bad things. And if you were to take, you know, minorities out of the equation right now, in rural America, you would not have a health care system.

MARTIN: But why do you think it is that your personal relationships with them did not overcome whatever attraction that a person they've probably never met or even seen in person offered to them? All right, you know, you're there every day, right?

VIRJI: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're there taking care of bruises and broken bones and diabetes. You know what I mean?

VIRJI: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: You're caring for people at their most vulnerable. Why do you think it is that your relationship with them did not overcome whatever attraction that this other person offered to them?

VIRJI: I remember going and visiting a patient in the hospital one day. I was just talking to the nurse, and just something general, talking - just made a comment. You know, politics are so divisive these days. And she overheard that.

And then, you know, I'm here at the bedside taking care of her. She just had an appendectomy. And she says, well, you know why we have to get rid of these people from North Africa? You know, what religion are they? I was, like, I don't know. And she said, well, they're Muslims. We have to get rid of them. And I said, well, do you know that I'm a Muslim?

And then her jaw hits the ground and says, well, I hope you know I don't see you that way. And I said, well, you should see me that way. I don't try to hide it. And then she's struggling with what to say. And then she says, well, it's OK because you were born here. You weren't born over there.

And, of course, I stopped the conversation. But I wanted to say, no, I was born in Africa. That's where I was born - in Kenya. I was not born here, you know? But, of course, we, you know, diverted the conversation. This was not the right place to have it. But I think that people will look at me as maybe not even in that group and say that, oh, well, this - he's different. You know, that's - that doesn't apply to him.

MARTIN: OK. So spoiler alert - you're leaving.

VIRJI: (Laughter).

MARTIN: You are moving overseas. And, in fact, you said - at least, I understand that you're going to keep your home in Dawson, and you're going to practice, you know, parts of the year, right? But as I understand it, you're going to move to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE. Why?

VIRJI: So interesting - I don't see it as leaving, actually. I still practice in Dawson, and I practice now between Abu Dhabi and Dawson. We decided to make this change at the end of the day because there was a - it was a very good opportunity and also for us to reconnect with family. So my family lives in Dubai overseas.

MARTIN: Well, though it's impossible to kind of speculate, really, but if you don't think people had been calling your wife a part-time terrorist, if you don't think people had been kind of questioning your loyalty to the country, and - do you think you'd be leaving?

VIRJI: It's a fair question. And I would say that the Trump phenomenon made the decision easier, I suppose. It wasn't the only aspect of it, but I can't tell you that it didn't have an effect.

MARTIN: That's Doctor Ayaz Virji. His new book is called "Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor's Struggle For Home In Rural America." He was with us from New York.

Dr. Virji, thanks so much for talking to us.

VIRJI: Thank you. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.