In a small Minn. town that went for Trump, a Muslim doctor tries to understand his neighbors
DAWSON, Minn. - The doctor was getting ready. Must look respectable, he told himself. Must be calm. He changed into a dark suit, blue shirt and tie and came down the wooden staircase of the stately Victorian house at Seventh and Pine that had always been occupied by the town's most prominent citizens.
That was him: prominent citizen, town doctor, 42-year-old father of three, and as far as anyone knew, the first Muslim to ever live in Dawson, a farming town of 1,400 people in the rural western part of the state.
"Does this look okay?" Ayaz Virji asked his wife, Musarrat, 36.
In two hours, he was supposed to give his third lecture on Islam, and he was sure it would be his last. A local Lutheran pastor had talked him into giving the first one in Dawson three months before, when people had asked questions such as whether Muslims who kill in the name of the prophet Muhammad are rewarded in death with virgins, which had bothered him a bit. Two months later, he gave a second talk in a neighboring town, which had ended with several men calling him the antichrist.
Now a librarian had asked him to speak in Granite Falls, a town half an hour away, and he wasn't sure at all what might happen. So many of the comforting certainties of his life had fallen away since the presidential election, when the people who had welcomed his family to Dawson had voted for Donald Trump, who had proposed banning Muslims from entering the United States, toyed with the idea of a Muslim registry and said among other things, "Islam hates us."
Trump had won Lac qui Parle County, where Dawson was the second-largest town, with nearly 60 percent of the vote. He had won neighboring Yellow Medicine County, where Granite Falls was the county seat, with 64 percent. Nearly all of Minnesota outside the Twin Cities had voted for Trump, a surprising turn in a state known for producing some of the Democratic Party's most progressive leaders, including the nation's first Muslim congressman.
Now Trump was in the White House, and Dawson's first Muslim resident was sitting in his living room, strumming his fingers on the arm of a chair. The pastor had called to say two police officers would be there tonight, just in case. The late afternoon sun came in through the windows, beyond which was a lovely town of sprawling cottonwoods, green lawns and so many people the doctor felt he no longer knew or maybe even could trust. The doorbell rang.
"Hey there," Ayaz said, snapping out of his thoughts to greet his neighbor.
"Hiya," said the neighbor, who worked in security.
He had heard from his wife about the talk in Granite Falls and, wanting to be helpful, had offered to lend Ayaz his bulletproof vest for the evening, and here it was, in the duffle bag he was slinging through the ornate front door. He set it down on a chair in the doctor's study and pulled out the vest. Ayaz looked at it. He began taking off his suit jacket and tie to try it on.
- - -
This was Dawson six months after the election, which was how Ayaz most often thought of things these days - before and after.
He remembered his first visit three years before, driving with Musarrat on a narrow highway west into the prairie and passing one little farm town after another - Cosmos, Prinsburg, Bunde, and finally seeing the wooden sign, "Welcome to Dawson."
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. He had been wanting to get away from his job working for a huge health-care chain in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania., and find a way to practice what he called "dignified medicine." The town seemed to want him, too, a doctor with a medical degree from Georgetown University and an interest in rural health. No one seemed to care that he was Muslim, of Indian descent, born in Kenya and raised in Florida. They just needed a good doctor. So the Virjis decided to move to Dawson.
By the winter of 2014, they were settling into the Victorian house on Pine and the life Ayaz imagined for his family. The children - Maya, Imran and Faisal, the oldest, who was 12 then - enrolled in the public school around the corner. Musarrat set up a spa business down the street. Ayaz often walked to work, where his smiling photo hung on the clinic and hospital walls along with his titles: chief of staff and medical director. He was one of only three doctors practicing in Dawson, and one of a few in the county, and was soon busy with patients and helping to plan a $7 million expansion of the facilities.
He and Musarrat made friends - Jason, Betty, Duane, Stacey and other Dawsonites who would drop by for kebabs or chicken parmesan. 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. In summer, neighbors spread blankets and chairs on the Virjis' front lawn and watched the annual parade float by.
And that was how it was going in Dawson, even through an election season that Ayaz found increasingly disturbing, as Trump kept whipping up crowds by saying that maybe Syrian refugees were part of a secret army, and maybe he'd have to shut down mosques, and maybe Muslims were the one immigrant group that could not become fully American.
All of that was in the air, but in a county that Barack Obama had won twice, Ayaz saw only two "Trump-Pence" yard signs during the whole campaign. He never thought Trump would win, much less in Dawson.
- - -
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.
He and Musarrat talked about what to do. He began investigating a job in Dubai. He spoke to his brother in Florida, an investment adviser, who had received a fax after the election that read, "Get the f--- out of my country you Muslim pig," and was moving to Canada. Musarrat kept thinking about the time after Sept. 11 when a man had chased her with a baseball bat, yelling about her headscarf.
Nothing like that had happened in Dawson, but the 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," 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.
Ayaz wasn't sure whether to believe that. But he and Musarrat decided to stay, at least for the time being, and he tried to transform his anger into understanding. Maybe people really didn't know, he told himself. Maybe people were suffering in ways he didn't understand. Not long after that, a patient of his named Mandy France, a pastor in training at Grace Lutheran, asked if he might be willing to give a talk about Islam to the community. She said she'd been horrified by some of the things she'd heard people saying about Muslims in her prayer group.
Ayaz had reservations. He almost never talked about his religion, and he wasn't sure it was his responsibility to teach people about it now. On the other hand, he thought how else will people learn, and so three months after the election, Dawson's first Muslim resident found himself standing on the stage of the high school auditorium in a suit, a bright spotlight shining on him.
He squinted, trying to make out the faces in the crowd of nearly 400 people filling up the seats. In the days before, people had been saying the whole thing was an effort to convert Christians to Islam. People had called the school, angry that the event was being held there. Ayaz had worked for weeks on what he would say, writing out an intricate 11-page outline by hand - from "step into shoes of Muslim" to "Quran- philosophical framework" - but when he ran it by Pastor Mandy, she had said no, you need to talk to people on a basic level. They are scared. So he tried to address the tension.
"I heard many people were protesting this talk," he began. "And I have to say, that stings a little bit. I mean, do I look that intimidating?"
He laughed, and a few people in the audience laughed.
"Do I look like a terrorist?" he said smiling at them, and after talking for an hour about what "99.99 percent" of Muslims believe, he ended with a slideshow of family photos.
"Look! We're normal!" he said. "That's our cat!"
People applauded and even stood up, and when it was over, some of them submitted questions to be answered later in the community newspaper.
"Do Muslims believe in birth control?"
"Do the majority of Muslims tolerate/respect other religions?"
"Why are terrorist attacks always from Muslims?"
When Ayaz read them, he wondered if this was what people were thinking when they saw him walking down the street. Still, he felt good enough about the whole exercise that when he was invited to speak in another town, he agreed, even though he had some reservations about venturing beyond Dawson.
Montevideo was 20 minutes east down the highway, a town of 5,200 people. He'd given a talk on obesity at the hospital there once but otherwise he was a stranger, and when 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.
- - -
Except that the invitations kept coming, including the one from Granite Falls.
It was 35 minutes east on the highway, a town of 2,900 people he'd only breezed through once or twice, but Ayaz decided okay, one more. Now fliers with his photo, the date and time of the talk were going up around Granite Falls and on Facebook, where reactions were coming in, including a thumbs-down from a man whose own photo was superimposed with a huge Confederate flag.
"What's the plan for Thursday?" a nurse asked Ayaz now.
It was Tuesday, two days before the talk, and people kept asking him about it with notes of worry in their voices. Pastor Mandy was saying she had a bad feeling. One of his friends told Ayaz that he should have police there. A colleague had mentioned that her husband had a bulletproof vest, and maybe Ayaz would like to borrow it.
"We're going to get security," Ayaz told the nurse.
He was sitting at a computer in the nurse's station, dictating notes on a patient. "Anxiety, as mentioned, under control, back pain, under control . . . "
"Oh," the nurse went on. "Don't do it."
"Mandy asked if I wanted to cancel," he said, checking another chart, his leg bouncing. He didn't want to be paranoid, but he didn't want to be naive. He kept thinking about the rise in hate crimes since the election. "I said I don't want to cancel. It's got me mad. I've got all this to think about - the talk, and now I have to worry about security. I mean, I'm not Martin Luther King."
He went back to dictating. "Stress level . . . white blood-cell count . . . breathing . . . delirium . . . "
"Granite Falls is a different town," the nurse continued. "It's a little bit rough."
"Okay. Well. Such is life," Ayaz said, getting up.
He headed down the hall to tend to his next patient, which was why he had come to Dawson anyway, he kept reminding himself. He asked a nurse to call a patient about lab work. He went into his office to call a colleague.
"Everything okay?" he said into the speakerphone.
They were supposed to be talking about a medical equipment issue.
"Isn't today the day you - " the colleague said.
"Thursday. It's Thursday. I decided to do it. So. Yeah," Ayaz said, and felt his anger rising again.
He hung up the phone and stared out the window.
He didn't want to be angry. He knew some of it was because Trump at times reminded him of people who had bullied him growing up, including high school classmates who called him the n-word and a "taco-eating bastard" and made those years "hellish" and "like a prison," all of which he had tried to escape by telling himself that one day he was going to be respected. One day he was going to lead a decent and dignified life, which is what he was trying to do when he closed his office door just after 1 p.m. He rolled out his mat, prayed, and carried on with the day.
On Wednesday night, Pastor Mandy came over to the house to talk through the plan for Granite Falls.
"Okay, so," she was saying. "I'm going to open by reading out of the Bible that there is no fear in love, but love casts out fear."
"That's good," Ayaz said, making a note on his outline.
"I think John 14:6 is going to be thrown at you. . . . 'I am the way and the truth and the light,' " Mandy said, referring to the verse many Christians understand to mean that Jesus is the only path to salvation.
Ayaz made a note of that, too, and suggested that perhaps she could explain to people how the verse is not necessarily literal.
"As soon as I say the Bible is not the literal truth, I'm going to be crucified," she said.
"Okay, don't do it," Ayaz said. "Let me be crucified. It's okay."
"No, you were crucified in Monte. It's my turn to be crucified," Mandy said.
"No, I'll do it," Ayaz said. "I'm the main enemy."
He told Mandy he'd found a verse to quote in case someone called him the antichrist again, and began looking for it in his Bible.
"Can I ask you a personal question?" she said. "Was that hurtful to you? Be honest."
"It wasn't," he said, not looking up.
"How could that not hurt you?" Mandy said. "He called you the embodiment of all that is evil."
"Didn't bother me," Ayaz said, still looking for the verse.
"I think that hurt you," she said.
He found it. He read the verse, about how unsparingly Jesus will judge hypocrites.
"What do you think of that?" he said. "Do you think that's good?"
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.
When he got home, he went upstairs to change, and came down in his suit.
"Does this look okay?" he asked Musarrat.
She looked at him. She held his face for a moment.
He went into the living room and sat in a chair, waiting for the body armor to arrive. He rubbed his face. The doorbell rang.
"Do you want to put it underneath or on top and really make a statement?" the neighbor asked Ayaz as he pulled the bulletproof vest out of the duffle bag.
"I don't want to make a statement," Ayaz said. He took off his jacket, his tie and his shirt as the neighbor tried to adjust the straps of the vest to make it less bulky. "It doesn't go any smaller than that?"
"No, this is it," his neighbor said, helping Ayaz put it on over his T-shirt.
Maya came into the study.
"Dad, what are you doing?" she said.
"Now I put the shirt on over?" Ayaz said, struggling into his dress shirt.
He walked over to a mirror, looked at himself and turned to his neighbor.
"I don't think this is going to work," he said. "This is very conspicuous."
He took it off and began getting dressed again.
"We really appreciate you doing these talks and stuff," the neighbor said, zipping the vest back in the duffle bag.
"Yeah. Sure," Ayaz said.
- - -
He was quiet as they drove along Oak Street and out of Dawson, heading east on the narrow highway into the open fields.
Musarrat brushed cat hair off his suit jacket.
"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."
They passed through Montevideo and continued farther east. "Ah, goodness," Ayaz sighed, and soon, they were arriving in Granite Falls, and parking in front of a square brick City Hall with a flapping American flag.
Ayaz went inside and made his way to the front of the city council chamber. He stood behind the long dais and looked out at the crowd filling all the chairs in the room and spilling into the lobby. He spotted the two police officers and began scanning faces in the audience for ones that appeared off-kilter. A man in khakis and tortoise-shell glasses. A brown-haired man holding a Bible. A disheveled, balding man in the lobby, looking at him through the glass door. A white-haired man sitting in the front row, arms folded. Ayaz recognized him.
"Hey," he said to Duane Husted, a neighbor he knew had voted for Trump.
"Hey," Duane said back, and soon Mandy stood up to begin, saying to the crowd, "I encourage you to listen."
Ayaz glanced at his outline and stood up. He said he hoped what he had to say might lead to a better understanding of one another, which was the point of the talk. "So, with that, I begin in the name of God, the most beneficent and most merciful," he said, reciting the Islamic phrase that usually comes before prayer.
Some people shifted in their chairs.
He introduced himself as a doctor who had studied comparative religion at Georgetown with professors who were "the epitome of intellect and scholarship." He said that what he learned was that if you want to understand Islam, or anything, "you have to be sincere" and "you have to use your brain."
He looked around at the crowd.
"Because it's easy to demonize. You know, 'Everybody else is crazy and I'm just right,' " he said sharply. "And what kind of society does that create? That's what ISIS does. That's what these zealots do. Do we want to be like that? As Americans, don't we want to be better than that? We better be better than that."
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.
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. "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.
"So, the purpose of today is to know one another," Ayaz continued, going back to the outline.
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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.
He asked them to imagine how they would feel if he judged Christians the way some people judge Muslims.
If he was dishonest, he said, he would pull out all the most violent Bible verses and say Christianity commands followers to kill.
If he was unfair, he would call the Christian cross a "symbol of torture."
The room was quiet.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
"Love thy neighbor? Do unto others?"
"Why should I come to rural America and help people who think I'm a terrorist and say, 'Let's ban these people from coming here! Ban these doctors from coming here!' "
He looked at his outline.
"So, now let's get to the issues . . . " he said. "Who believes that Islam supports and promotes terrorism?"
"None of you believe that? Really? Be honest! It's okay! Nothing's going to happen! I'm not a terrorist!"
Still no hands.
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."
He moved on to sharia.
"Sharia," he said in a menacing voice. "Come on. You guys know. This is the Devil talking! Come on! You guys know this. Sharia. All Muslims want to impose sharia? Chop off your heads and gouge your eyes out? Right? Isn't that what Muslims want to do? Isn't that what I want to do?"
He kept going, veering on and off his outline, from arcane points of Islamic doctrine to the absurd things people say about Islam, which "are about as stupid as they come."
He went over the history of Islam in America. He mentioned that Thomas Jefferson hosted what is considered the first iftar dinner, the meal that breaks the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. He talked about refugees. He talked about mercy. He talked and kept talking, and after an hour and a half in which not one person had left the room, Pastor Mandy tapped him on the arm and whispered that he needed to finish.
"I gotta do this," he told her.
He had one last thing to say, about judgment. He read the Bible verse he had written down the night before from the Gospel of Matthew, which describes what Jesus will say to those who professed his name but failed him.
"And he will say, 'I never knew you,' " Ayaz read. " 'Get away from me, you wicked people.' "
He looked up from his notes at the audience.
"He's telling this to you," Ayaz said. "So."
He gathered his outline.
"Anyway," he said. "I'm not going to talk about anything else."
He sat down. He was exhausted.
People shifted in their chairs. Mandy stood up.
"Okay," she said. "So. I think, what we will do is to give some time for people to ask questions."
Hands went up.
"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."
She sat down.
"Thank you," Ayaz said, and looked out at all the hands.
He called on a man with a beard.
"I don't have a specific question for you, but maybe a comment," he said. "In the U.S., the way we teach American history, we condense it down so much. We clean it up. We leave out a whole bunch of things. As Christians, we sanitize it even more . . . and you kind of alluded to that. People really need to be honest about our history."
"I would agree with you, well said," Ayaz said. "Who's next?"
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.
He sat down. The room was silent. People looked at Ayaz, waiting for his response. He glanced down and then around the room at them, at the two police officers, the man in the tortoise shell glasses, the man with the Bible, the disheveled one, his neighbors.
"Thank you for that," he said.
There were a few more questions, and then Ayaz was done talking. He had said everything he wanted to say, and now he listened to the applause.
- - -
He kept thinking about it all as they headed back west on the highway.
"People were very nice," he said. "Gracious."
He said that he'd been surprised to see Duane, and some other Dawson people.
Musarrat said she saw Lori, Diane, Mary and her husband.
"Oh, and then Sandy and her husband," she said.
They passed the same fields they passed before, now in the last light of day.
"Was I too negative?" Ayaz asked after a while.
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.
Author Information: Stephanie McCrummen is a national enterprise reporter for The Washington Post. Previously, she was the paper's East Africa bureau chief. She has also reported from Egypt, Iraq and Mexico, among other places.