MINNESOTA – The only Muslim family in Dowson, a small town about 150 miles west of the Twin Cities, is teaming up with a local pastor to educate the people on their faith and fight misconceptions, after finding themselves on the defensive after President Trump’s inauguration.
“What we found is people, they really don’t know. They don’t know. They think that Islam promotes terrorism. They think that Islam oppresses women. They think that Shari`ah tells people to cut people’s heads off,” Dr. Ayaz Virji told CBS Minnesota on Thursday, March 9.
The situation was not that intimidating when the Virji moved from Pennsylvania to rural Minnesota in 2014.
“I left a very lucrative leadership position. In fact, that hospital has several times called me to try to come back, to recruit me back, but I’ve just found a professional satisfaction that was second to none working here,” said Dr. Ayaz, the medical director of the local hospital.
It was passion for rural medicine that brought him to this town of 1,500, near the South Dakota border.
“The people are amazingly genuine and nice here in the rural towns, and we have had nothing but a gracious welcoming when we came, when we arrived. We felt that for the longest time,” Ayaz said.
The changing political climate and immigration ban were adding to their feelings of anxiety.
“It’s actually kind of becoming a little exhausting now cause I feel like I’m on the defense every time, as if I have to prove to them why I’m not those people that are on TV,” Musarrat, Ayaz’s wife, said.
With the increase of misconceptions about Islam in media and political rhetoric, a Lutheran Intern-Pastor, Mandy France, decided to interfere after realizing that the town was much less diverse than her native Apple Valley.
“I saw a need for people to become educated on another world religion other than Christianity, and that’s where my internship project stemmed from,” France said.
Therefore, she invited the town to meet the five members of the only Muslim family to listen and ask questions.
“We are going to allow a Muslim family to stand up and speak the truth about their faith and dismantle all the misconceptions about the Islamic faith,” she said.
The call was answered by about 400 people, or 27 percent of the town’s population, who showed up for the conversation.
Ayaz addressed the crowd, many of who are his patients.
“Do I look that intimidating? Do I look like a terrorist?” he asked.
He explained the similarities in the Bible and the Qur’an, why some Muslim women wear headscarves, how murder is highly condemned in the faith and how extremists make up a tiny percent of their peaceful faith.
The conversation was praised by many locals as informative.
“I thought it was very informative and so did my friends who came with me,” Dawn Pehrson, of Dawson, said.
Jessica Stolen said she enjoyed the almost two hour session.
“I really wanted to bring my children just to educate them on different cultures,” Stolen said.
Pastor Mandy has set a new goal for herself. “Hopefully bring an end to Islamophobia within not only just the community but hopefully it spreads.”