Story published: June 12, 2019

When Dr. Ayaz Virji moved his family from the East Coast to settle in Dawson, Minn., to practice rural medicine, he had no idea that he would also have to defend his Muslim beliefs. But his tenure at the local hospital, where he settled into his role as chief of staff and bariatric specialist, also included engaging with his new community and region. Along the way, he had to educate and talk about Islam and his beliefs in the face of a highly-charged national political landscape.

His story was covered on Almanac.

Dr. Virji wrote a book about that experience. Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle For Home In Rural America was released this month. He spoke with host Eric Eskola and political reporter Mary Lahammer.

“I wanted to go to an under-served community,” Virji said. “I wanted to practice and help critical access hospitals that were closing down. Also, it seems very unfair that we have 20 percent of the population in the rural towns, but only nine percent of the doctors.”

Before moving to Dawson, he knew very little about life in a rural community. But he saw an opportunity. He said it seemed like the right decision to make, to be able to make a difference in a place least served with medical care.

But his arrival was soon met with challenges about his religion. He met people who insisted that he believed in a radicalized form of his religion. It was disconcerting to have others tell him what he believed when those assumptions didn’t match his own idea of his faith. And in a small community of 1,500, where everyone knew everyone else, ignoring those statements, even if misinformed, would not make living in southwestern Minnesota any easier for himself or his family. And that is why the Georgetown University-educated doctor realized he would have to address misperceptions and stereotypes directly with his neighbors – in churches, gymnasiums or on college campuses. If not him, then who would do it?

“Imagine if Jim Jones defined Christianity, or if Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the biggest Christian terrorist in the world, defined Christianity. And that every time you were to speak on [Christianity], you’d have to be defending [those beliefs]. It just wouldn’t be fair, it wouldn’t be right,” he said.

Virji also said he’s learned from the residents of Dawson about his own misperceptions. And he’s also realized that people are complicated, and that many decent, loving people he has met there voted for President Trump, whom Virji credits with hate-filled rhetoric.

“I’ve come to understand that not everyone [who voted for Trump] are bigots, but it’s fear that drove that.”

This story was published February 2018.


Dive deeper into Dr. Virji’s experience in Dawson, Minn., in “Muslim Doctor Finds Purpose and Pushback in Rural Town.”

Explore additional stories by One Greater Minnesota reporter Kaomi Goetz, including one about how Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients in rural St. James, Minn., are coping with their uncertain futures.

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