‘Love thy neigh­bor?’

When a Mus­lim doc­tor ar­rived in a ru­ral Mid­west­ern town, ‘it felt right.’ But that feel­ing be­gan to change af­ter Don­ald Trump was elected.


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, Pa., 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 “Qu­ran­philo­soph­i­cal 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 brown­haired man hold­ing a Bi­ble. A di­sheveled, bald­ing man in the lobby, look­ing at him through the glass door. A white­haired 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?” No hands. “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.


Larry Olson, top, makes a com­ment dur­ing Ayaz Virji’s lec­ture on Is­lam in Gran­ite Falls, Minn. Dur­ing the lec­ture, Ayaz’s third on the topic, he spoke more from his heart than from his script, which prompted dis­course after­ward be­tween Ayaz, left, and cit­i­zens such as Charles Kauff­man.


Musar­rat Virji, Ayaz’s wife, and their daugh­ter Maya, 9, pre­pare to bowl with friend Paige Conover, 11, at the al­ley lo­cated in Daw­son’s two-block down­town area.

Ayaz gives a lec­ture on Is­lam — his third such talk — at City Hall in Gran­ite Falls, about half an hour from Daw­son.

Ayaz prays in his of­fice af­ter see­ing a pa­tient at the hos­pi­tal. He came to Daw­son be­cause he wanted to prac­tice what he calls “dig­ni­fied medicine.”


Ayaz Virji stops to buy pop­corn at a stand with Maya on the way back to his car af­ter his lec­ture on Is­lam in Gran­ite Falls, Minn.

Ayaz Virji re­acts as Musar­rat feeds dates to Maya as Pas­tor Mandy France checks her phone af­ter pre­par­ing for the next day’s lec­ture, which ad­dressed the con­cerns that had been weigh­ing on him since the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump.

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