Episode 3: If not me, then who?

Going out and talking to people is a little thing, but it's also a big thing.

Especially if those people are different from you, or might not like you, or might even reject you. Carvell Wallace talks to someone who's doing just that. Dr. Ayaz Virji is the town doctor in the 1400-person town of Dawson, Minnesota. He, his wife, and their three children are the only Muslim family in Dawson. The 2016 election changed how he saw his neighbors — so he started talking.

Dr. Ayaz Virji


Dr. Ayaz Virji, MD is a family physician practicing in Dawson, MN. After the 2016 election, Dr. Virji began giving lectures about Islam in America covering topics including women's rights, terrorism, and the concept of Sharia Law. These talks have grown for local small town audiences to speaking across the country about diversity, inclusion, and the fabric of religion and the American experience. Dr. Virji's story has been featured in The Washington Post and other national outlets.


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Episode 3 Transcript


Closer Than They Appear: Episode 3
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:00:00] One of the things I said very publicly in the hospital to one of the nurses that I regret saying, was like, "You know, you guys don't want me, as in the brown Muslim. You want the doctor, so if you could peel my brownness and my Muslim off and you could just keep the doctor and put the other part of me on a registry, you would do that and you proved it by the way you voted, you know. And that's probably going too far, but this is how I felt after the election.
Carvell Wallace: [00:00:32] That's Dr. Ayaz Virji. I'm Carvell Wallace and this is Closer Than They Appear. Dr. Virji is the town doctor in the 1,400 -person town of Dawson, Minnesota. Maybe you read about him in The Washington Post. He and his wife and three children are the only Muslim family in Dawson. He's been the town doctor there for the past three years. He used to work for this big health care chain in Pennsylvania but then he left that job because he wanted to focus on working with people in rural communities and he did.
[00:01:07] And it was fine. He was happy with his choice until November 9th, 2016.
[00:01:16] Because that morning, he woke up to find that nearly half the people in his town, a lot of them his patients, had voted for Trump.
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:01:28] And it was very easy to see who voted for Trump and who didn't because the people who didn't made it known to me that, "I can't believe it..." whatever. And the people who did were very quiet and just didn't say anything. And you know, I was like, "How can you be quiet? This guy wants to put me on a registry and you voted for him.
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:01:49] And then the next day when my son comes in and says "Dad, can't we just pretend we're not Muslim so we can stay in the U.S.?"
[00:01:54] I mean, how do you respond to that? How how do you be silent about that?
Carvell Wallace: [00:02:04] Last week, I talked with Shereen Marisol Meraji.
Shereen Marisol Meraji: [00:02:07] If people did something as simple as just walking down the street and saying hi to their neighbors, like something will break, something will soften.
Carvell Wallace: [00:02:17] And after that conversation I felt like I had a clear mandate: go out and talk to people in person, not just from a distance, people who might be different from me, who might not like me, who might even reject me. Start having these face to face conversations so we can find some common ground.
[00:02:37] If you didn't hear that episode, you should go listen to it. It's actually pretty good. And maybe you'll feel like I did, that going out and talking to people is a little thing, but it's also a big thing. Like it's going to be painful, but we're going to make progress, little by little, you know person by person.
Announcer: [00:03:00] So give a round of applause for Dr. Ayaz Virji.
Carvell Wallace: [00:03:06] But then talking with Dr. Virji kind of gave me pause, because he's really experiencing the pain part.
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:03:15] So the purpose of today's discussion is to know one another and to dispel myths, as I mentioned in the Quran, Chapter Two...
Carvell Wallace: [00:03:22] A few months after the election he started doing exactly this. He started going out and talking to his neighbors, like literally giving public lectures, first in Dawson and then in towns around Dawson, about Islam.
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:03:34] This is not an exclusive religion that says, "Hey listen you're either one of us or you're of the people who are not saved." Islam doesn't do that.
Carvell Wallace: [00:03:41] About what his religion actually teaches, about Muslims and who they really are. And it's been going...
Audience Member: [00:03:48] There are passages in the Qur'an that mention about fighting for Allah...
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:03:53] Sure. So you've mentioned a number of points and I think.
Carvell Wallace: [00:03:58] Well, I'll let him tell you.
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:04:02] I mean, we've gotten or I've gotten over 700 letters and gifts in the mail and e-mails from people who... and it's just so heartfelt and touching. Now, there's also those death threats coming in. Being called the anti-Christ during one of the lectures, I mean to me, it was just you know, it was it was interesting. It was an educational experience. It's somebody who actually thinks that I'm the devil because I'm talking, because I'm having a conversation.
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:04:29] Somebody even sent me a death threat in Latin. We had to look it up, you know. So those people are going to be there and you know, I don't want them to dominate the work and this work again that I'm doing... I don't want to do this. This is this is a burden if anything. It's just... it feels like I should do it. It feels like I need to continue. And I've really, you know after every lecture that I did, I said this is the last one I don't want to do this anymore. I didn't come to Dawson, Minnesota to teach people about Islam. Islam is very... it's a very personal thing to me. I don't want to go talk about it.
Carvell Wallace: [00:05:05] He doesn't want to talk about it. But he has to.
[00:05:09] That sounds familiar, right? I mean, he hoped he wouldn't, but November 9th, 2016, the election of Donald Trump, that made it so that he had to. He had to do it for his survival. He had to do it to stay in his town. I mean, to help his family and his people survive in America.
[00:05:28] But how could he do this? How could he choose to go out and spend time with people who hate Muslims? How much good in these people should he really be trying to see?
[00:05:44] What is it like to roll into a place like Dawson with your family, this small sort of idyllic town in the middle of America? What is what are you thinking about in those moments?
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:05:54] So when we first moved here, you know, everything just felt right. I mean, the people were great. When we came for the interview, I remember because I came with Musarrat. And I can't remember, I think two of the kids came with us and we had this discussion, because Musarrat is my wife and she's wonderful. She knew that I wasn't happy with just doing you know, the medicine I was practicing and that this was bothering me and I wanted to do something better. And so she encouraged me to continue to think about you know, a rural medicine -type practice. When we came here, because we remembered very clearly the Islamophobia post-9/11 and experiencing that. And I remember my wife being chased by you know, with a baseball bat in the car and that was really traumatic. In fact, she still remembers that quite routinely.
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:06:43] So we had gone ten rounds with this. We didn't want to ever go through it again. So I told her I said, "Listen, the... if somebody even looks at us wrong, we're not going to take the position, you know." And it wasn't just about seeing the hospital and... but it was, how do you feel around the people? Are you going to get the stares? You know, when you walk into a room, are people gonna...? You can feel the stares and I guess she's a professional at experiencing those stares 'cause she is more visible than I am because she wears the head scarf. I can blend in a little bit easier.
[00:07:12] And I said, "Listen, the smallest discomfort, we just won't take the position, very simple. We won't make we won't make the move." And when we came here, everything was perfect. I mean, we everybody that we met was so gracious and so kind. Nobody stared at her. And people I remember we went to the school, that was a big deal for us too because we were worried about kind of bullying and things of that sort. And we were we walked in and there was like four people lined up, the principal and several of the staff members and ancillary teachers etc. and they were like, "Welcome to Dawson." It was almost very picturesque. It was like a almost like, I tell people it was like our personal Storybrooke. It was like a little fantasy. It was... you know, everybody was so nice and you had the town butcher.
[00:07:55] Everybody knows one another and everybody waves and and the smiles are genuine and you know, that's the impression we got and then we had... I went to the hospital. I loved the hospital and then we had dinner with the other providers and some of the local residents and everything just felt really, really good.
[00:08:14] And it felt right.
[00:08:17] Retrospectively, I think how much is it because they just really needed a doctor here?
Carvell Wallace: [00:08:25] It's long been an unspoken rule that everything good about America is inextricably tied to everything bad about America. This country prides itself on common folk, on good hardworking, God-fearing people, people with values like freedom and fairness. And there are people like that. But how many political spots and truck ads and multinational oil conglomerate commercials have you seen featuring slow motion drives down Main Street, USA, where the people and the flags wave? Probably more than you can count.
Carvell Wallace: [00:09:09] When Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in 2013, something in my life changed. Something in my relationship to America changed. It wasn't that I didn't know how racist we were as a country. It was that I didn't know how many other people didn't know. I didn't know how many of you didn't know.
Carvell Wallace: [00:09:33] So, I started talking about it. First on Facebook and then at work, where I was the only black person in my whole company. And then on blogs and then on websites and then in magazines and then in newspapers and now here on this podcast.
[00:09:49] But I didn't start doing it because I wanted to do it. I did it because I had to, because people are always looking for a way out of responsibility. You can't just tell them that they're a part of the problem. You have to show them, you have to show them again and again and again. And then you have to be questioned by them and name-called and doubted and "well, actually-d" every day. It's exhausting and it's annoying and it's shitty. But ignoring it ceases to be an option. And so you wait and wait until it ceases to be an option for everyone else.
Carvell Wallace: [00:10:32] So yeah so in some ways, you kind of got to the next question I had which is like, that you know first of all, on a larger scale this juxtaposition between beautiful small town values where things are clean and the people are genuine and everyone waves and everyone knows the mailman... The juxtaposition between that and some of the ugliness that can exist if you're not white in those places, is a big part of the American story. I think I've experienced that. I think we all have, but I wanted as a person who has been in this community for a while, I want to know what you think accounts for how those two things can co-exist. How can a place with such kindness and such commitment to values also have supported someone like the president that you described?
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:11:27] I mean, I can't have a really honest conversation with individuals here about that, because I am the town doctor. Nobody wants to offend me. Nobody wants me to go. And these are good people. You know, these are good people who are working and they have problems and I have the benefit of being a physician and seeing people at their most vulnerable and you know, I you know I have to in just several days ago I had to tell somebody that they had multiple myeloma, which is a very fatal and painful cancer.
[00:11:58] And it's not fun and it's difficult. And you know, people like that are the true kind of heroes and stand up with courage and you know, I think when I have those experiences you know, one of the things that I try to do and this is probably... this comes from my religion, from Ali ibn Abi Talib, who is one of the successors of the prophet. He said, "You should always treat people like they're better than you. And if you're not doing that then you're not a Muslim.”
[00:12:31] So I take that to heart. To me, every time I see a patient, every time I see a person I think that they're better than I am and I treat them that way because it's true. They're better than me at something, no doubt about that. And as a physician, when I explore people's lives and backgrounds, they end up becoming my teachers and I've learned so much more about them and I've just come to the conclusion that all of us... Now, granted this philosophy of treating people like they're better than you was challenged with this president.
Carvell Wallace: [00:13:03] Do you think you can treat Trump like he's better than you?
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:13:05] Yeah. Yes. I mean that's one I struggle with. I still do, but you know what? He's a better con man than I am, so... But anyway...
[00:13:11] So people here I really think and I do believe this in my heart that all of us have this brilliance in us, all of us do. And the bad stuff that we've put on top of that, we've done it through our experiences. We've done it because of our bad choices. None of us are inherently evil and we are all brilliant, all of us, even even somebody who is as narcissistic and evil words and things as you know, the current commander in chief. We have this you know light in us.
[00:13:44] And I think that that has helped me at least try to break it down further when I talk to people.
Carvell Wallace: [00:13:56] If I didn't believe there was goodness in everyone then I would have given up a long time ago, but just because there is goodness in everything doesn't mean everything is good. You have to acknowledge the sheer awfulness of what we face but you have to do it without disappearing behind a cloud of anger or fear or despair.
[00:14:19] It's hard.
[00:14:22] It makes me think about my conversation with Mahershala Ali, who talked about seeing the love and kindness and goodness in people, or even here with Dr. Virji, who's talking about seeing goodness in people.
[00:14:34] It's a message that gets easily co-opted. This country has a way of hiding behind optimism and faith in order to avoid taking action or prioritizing forgiveness and "thoughts and prayers," rather than taking action. Accusing people of not having enough hope, of not loving America enough, when they just have valid criticisms of how this country treats its citizens. It's bullshit, but still it takes a toll and it starts when you're young, even when you're a kid.
Ezra Wallace: [00:15:17] Just like Trump getting elected changed the way that I saw... I think it definitely changed the way I saw people that have different opinions than me.
Carvell Wallace: [00:15:29] You remember my son, Ezra.
Ezra Wallace: [00:15:31] And it made me just like, resent them. And like you know, and like really just how have this like hatred for them that I don't know if I would have had if I grew up in a world like you know, in like an Obama world where we had a woman president or you know like a Jewish president or other black president or something like that.
Carvell Wallace: [00:15:54] Georgia, do you think that you... that this election, and this situation, has changed her behavior on a daily basis at all, or if so, how?
Georgia Wallace: [00:16:05] Yeah. I mean yeah, I don't... Maybe.
Carvell Wallace: [00:16:08] And of course, this is my daughter, Georgia, my 12 year old.
Georgia Wallace: [00:16:13] I mean, it could have changed my behavior on a daily basis like, I do think that we need to be definitely more accepting to all types of people and everybody because like...
[00:16:25] Everybody... the kinder you are to other people, the kinder they are to you, which is just a normal like thing that everybody knows. And I think that the thing is, everybody is trying to achieve happiness. And everybody think of it in a different way and thinks that we can it in a different way.
Carvell Wallace: [00:16:45] I don't know if she's right. I mean, even though I taught her that, I don't know anymore if she's right. I don't know if the kinder you are to people, the kinder they are to you. I wish that was true. But I also wish my daughter didn't believe that. What I actually believe is that the kinder you are to people, to everyone, the more you treat each human life like it has worth and then the harder it is for you to crumble under the hate and the fear and the despair. The less you hate yourself, the harder it is for you to become a part of the problem.
Carvell Wallace: [00:17:27] Do you think it's possible for someone to be virulently anti-Islam, to wish harm for you and for your family and also to be a good person?
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:17:42] Yes. I do.
[00:17:46] Or let's go back to the guy who said I was the anti-Christ. OK. And let's you know, I will never change him. He just he has that stance and that's it. He could be the same guy who has adopted a child with cerebral palsy and has spent his life taking care of this individual. He could be the same guy who volunteers at a soup kitchen. He could be the same guy who goes on a mission trip to Africa and helps build houses for people, you know. So there... he could be doing all those things and that's that inner light that just won't go away. But the the things that he said and the idea that he had, was based upon you know, ignorance and that's unfortunate, because you know, in all of the major world religions the emphasis on scholarship and understanding and wisdom is is very is very great. In Islam, it says, "The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr" and in Proverbs, in the Bible, it says you know, "You should never think you were wiser than you are. God loves those who he corrects and wisdom is priceless. There's nothing that can compare to it. It's more valuable than jewels. And God created the world with his sophia, with his wisdom." So people who I think sometimes minimize their religion to just a belief, versus the whole package, they'll get the package of the heart and the mind. And many people have a great heart, but their mind has been distracted or diluted because of ignorance.
Carvell Wallace: [00:19:19] So you suggest that like knowledge is the opposite of ignorance, that it brings light to where there is darkness, which makes sense. So the question isn't really can... is there something that can help? Yes. Knowledge could help. The question is, can we as a collective calm down enough to receive the knowledge? In other words, my limbic system is on fire. My sense of life and death is triggered, and is... and has been increasingly triggered, like growing up as a black man in the U.S., there's a lot of life and death stuff that you go through. And I vividly remember being 13 or 14 and just kind of generally, vaguely assuming that I was probably going to be dead by the time I was 25.
Carvell Wallace: [00:20:07] Like, I don't know. It wasn't even like a morbid thought. It was like, yeah. I mean, come on like there's so many ways I could die, police, be shot by gangs, I could be shot in the streets... Like, this is... I'm probably going to be dead or I even thought I was going to end up in prison.
Carvell Wallace: [00:20:21] Now, I was a kid going to school. I went to an arts high school. I was in like, three Shakespeare like groups when I was in high school. I was like reading you know, John Steinbeck on the bus. Like that's the kind of kid I was. And I still thought, there's probably some chance that I'm going to end up in prison, somehow. I don't know how yet, but I'm sure they'll figure something out. Like that's literally the way I thought.
[00:20:42] And the kids I grew up around I think even more so, the ones who actually were in life and death situations, who did gang bang, who did sell drugs, who were in that life. Those kids even have that more. And so that's always been there. And then you start, for me police shootings began to really start happening.
[00:20:59] So I'm thinking if that is my lived experience for many years, from childhood up into into my 40s, that that is many people's experience and that one of the problems with this time, is that it's that becomes a that becomes an infectious condition, that now everyone feels a little bit life or death-y. Everyone. People on the left, people on the right. Women, men, children, boys, Christians, Muslims. Everyone feels a little under threat and when when there's that much lighting up of the fight-or-flight response, you know, I wonder can people actually like receive knowledge, take time to engage critical thinking? I wonder what you think about that.
Dr. Ayaz Virji: [00:21:44] No, I think you've really hit it on the head and I think you've very emotionally actually, defined some deep issues as far as how how deep this can make somebody feel and how much it can hurt. And man, I have my bad days too. You know, all of us have our vices that we deal with. You know, one of my issues is anger. You know, it just I get angry and I have to temper myself and one of the things I do and I do this all the time, is I ask myself, you know, who am I? Why am I here? And where am I going? Who am I? I'm a caretaker. I'm a caretaker to whoever has been put under my care, that being my family, my patients, my community. I need to do this. And it's not about what I want to do, it's about what needs to be done.
Carvell Wallace: [00:22:40] I didn't think I would live past age 25. I didn't even try. I just taught myself not to care. I abandoned relationships and retreated into drugs and alcohol and junk food. I didn't believe in life. I only believed in waiting for death and I wasn't the only person who did this. I watched my family members do this generations before me. I watched us grasp on to whatever distractions could keep us from having to feel how incredibly painful and hard it is to fight for life in a country that keeps lying to you, that keeps trying to kill you. Rodney King, Abner Louima, Patrick Dorismond, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin.
[00:23:42] Those names were warnings. They made you feel like what happened to them could happen to you, that it would happen to you. That is terrorism. That teaches you to keep your head down because you're afraid of what will be done to you if you don't. And you have to resist that, because that will make you afraid to live. And in order to survive, you have to not be afraid to live. But then in order to fully live, you have to not be afraid to die. Some of us got money.
[00:24:16] We bought TVs and houses and filled refrigerators and freezers with food. Some of us got guns and cigarettes and smoked weed until nothing was real. We had to do that, even to leave the house.
[00:24:29] We just wanted out of being alive, of feeling, of struggling. We just wanted out, but for some of us, out never came. Instead, Trump did. So what now?
[00:24:53] I have this childhood friend who I haven't seen in 32 years, in a town I haven't been to in close to two decades. We grew up together. We both thought we'd be dead by the time we were 25. We're 43 now.
[00:25:10] Next week, I'm going to go talk to him. Next week, I'm going to go home.
One last thing before we go. 

Voicemail: Thanks Carvell. My name is Derrick. I live in MA. This message is for my old teacher, Mark.

Carvell Wallace: Last week I asked you to imagine a person you didn’t want to talk to. Someone you hurt or someone who had hurt you. And a lot of you called! Here’s just one. 

Voicemail: Why did you treat me so differently? What happened to you in the past that made you hate my blackness? I have had this resentment for him for the last 15 years, which is how long it’s been since I’ve been in high school. I’m doing fine right now. I have a family of five. I have a nice house. My kids are going to private school. But I have insecurities, self-confidence issues, and a lot of it stems from high school/middle school. I was the only african american in the school. It was a very trying time for me. And guys like Mark really mentally destroyed me. And I feel weird saying that out loud, because I’ve never said that out loud. 

Carvell Wallace: So the first time I heard this, I was in public. And I had to put my head down, because I didn’t want anyone to see me crying. To Derrick, I would say, I know this hurts. What this person did to you and the way they treated you is not our fault. It’s not a reflection on your worth, or your value, or how important you are. You have value. You deserve to be here. This is actually a mantra that I have in my own life. It’s very embarrassing, I can’t believe I’m telling people. But there are actually times in my life when I have to say that to myself. Dozens of times in a row. Just to make it through a 20 min stretch of depression or anxiety. You have value. You deserve to be here. When you’re a child and an adult treats you this way, they make you question your worth. At least in my case, they made me question what I did to deserve this treatment. Like being black was somehow my fault, and the racist treatment that I received was somehow like a reflection of something wrong with me. My whole adult life was trying to unlearn that. And I want you to know, from me to you, that you don’t have to carry that. 

And I want to hear more of these stories. Even though it sometimes hurts, I want to hear more of these stories. What do you have to say? Who do you need to say it to? Call me and tell me at (949) 522-5587. That’s (949) 522-5587. Leave a voicemail. You don’t have to use your name if you don’t want to. And you might hear yourself on the show. Or you can tell us your story on social media. We’re on facebook and twitter @closershow. And if you’ve actually had one of these hard conversations, what was that like? Call and tell me about that too, thanks. 

[00:25:31] You've been listening to Closer Than They Appear from Jetty Studios. I would really love to hear from you, so write the show review on Apple podcasts or find us on social media. We're on Facebook and Twitter @closershow and you can always find links to episodes and full transcripts on our website closerthantheyappear.fm. Our senior producer is Casey Miner. Our producer is Lacey Roberts and our editor is Leila Day. Graelyn Brashear and Paulana Lamonier run our social media and our associate producer Meradith Hoddinott. Our show was engineered by Mark Behm with mixing and sound design by Ian Coss. Music is by Antique Naked Soul. You can hear more of them at Antique-Music.com. Megan Jones runs our podcast operations and Jessica Wang is our senior video producer. Special thanks to Andrew Sterner and Stephanie McCrummen, whose article in The Washington Post is how we first learned about Dr. Virji. Jetty's executive producer is Julie Caine and the general manager Kaizar Campwala. Until next week, thanks for listening.
[00:26:37] Jetty.