In My Own Words: Rob Dewhirst

Image of Rob Dewhirst

Rob Dewhirst is a New Zealand born engineer based in Christchurch. He is a convert to Islam and the Chairperson of the Canterbury Muslim Community Trust.

Rob kindly took time out for a quick question and answer session with the Office of Ethnic Communities while he was in Christchurch last week. This was despite being busy with international development contracts in East Timor, his work as Chairperson for the Canterbury Muslim Community Trust and preparations to go on the Hajj. The Hajj is the pilgrimage to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s most sacred space, and is one of the five essential pillars of Islam – meaning that all Muslims should perform Hajj at least once in their lives.

Can you describe your journey to Islam and your community work?

I have had a life-long interest in working in international development. As a young man I applied to Volunteer Service Overseas but they had nothing for me then. On a trip to visit family in Britain I applied to their equivalent scheme and ended up in Indonesia working as an engineer on water and gas projects. It was there I developed an interest in Islam. On my return from Indonesia I enrolled at Auckland University where I completed my Master's degree. I subsequently returned to Indonesia, where I married a Muslim lady. On returning to Christchurch I was approached by Taalib Jones (another convert to Islam) and asked to join the Canterbury Building Bridges Muslim Group, which was then working with the Office of Ethnic Affairs (as the office was known then. The Building Bridges group subsequently re-formulated into the Canterbury Muslim Community Trust (CMCT) and became an incorporated society. One of the priorities for the Canterbury Muslim Community Trust is still to build bridges between diverse groups within Islam and society generally.

Can you describe the Muslim community in Christchurch?

The Muslim Community is very diverse ethnically and culturally and incorporates a wide spectrum of interpretations and approaches to Islam. The practice of Islam ranges from the very conservative to quite secular interpretations. This creates opportunities for knowledge sharing and dialogue on common values between communities. One of the things I value about working with the Canterbury Muslim Community Trust is our shared interest in working to improve social disparities from an Islamic perspective or platform. This level of diversity in a small but highly visible and active community represents a leadership challenge at many levels.

Can you describe a moment when you felt you and your group were a force for good in the community?

Our association with the multi-faith prayer room which recently opened at Christchurch Airport. This initiative was highly praised locally and internationally as a very positive inter-faith collaboration.

What does New Zealand need to do to keep building bridges between communities and faiths?

I believe New Zealand's existing environment is a very positive one for maintaining and growing a stable and connected society in a fast changing world. At the local level, initiatives such as the Christchurch City Council’s Multicultural Strategy provide concrete opportunities for communities to work together. New Zealand's democracy, legal frameworks, transparent government institutions, and its social narratives of anti-racism and equality are the foundation of a shared value system which allows diverse communities and individuals to participate and thrive.