By Greer Berry
Sep 28 2019
Following the Christchurch mosque attacks, Kiwis are more interested than ever in the Muslim world. But what about those who had already converted? Greer Berry talks to a man who says he's the only Maori Muslim in Manawatu about why he converted to the religion.
Colin was in the car with his daughter when he knew he had to tell her.
She had come to pick him up to go somewhere, but instead, he asked if they could swing by the mosque on Cook St in Palmerston North.
It was March 15, a day etched in all Kiwis' memories, especially those in Christchurch.
Overcome with emotion, Colin decided now was the time he had to come clean.
"On the way there I said: 'I've got to tell you something,'" the 59-year-old remembers, becoming upset at his recollections.
For the first time, Colin revealed to those closest to him that he had converted to Islam the year before.
"She was good, but she was upset because I hadn't told her."
He's a private person and it was a private journey for him, so he had never felt the need to tell others about his decision.
Colin was also worried about what others would say or think, about being judged and misunderstood. It's something he still worries about.
On this day, the terrorist attack had changed that. He felt like he needed to share his newfound faith with his three children, "just in case".
"It was hard, but the Muslim community is strong. It was because of that that I thought: 'I've got to tell my kids'.
"I know the kids, no matter what I do, will support me," he says.
"Now they know, it's really good, they're really supportive."
Colin's road to conversion is one many others have found themselves on.
He was going through a hard time and was looking for a sense of belonging and contentment, and in Islam, he found that.
The religion is the fastest-growing faith in the world.
There aren't official figures on the number of people in New Zealand converting, but anecdotally, mosques around the country are reporting an increase in those attending prayers and interested in finding out more about the religion.
Following the Christchurch attacks, a Wellington mosque was reporting three to five people a day converting, and other mosques similarly reported running out of printed material aimed at educating others about Islam.
The Manawatu Muslims Association is trying to establish a group to arrange a database of new converts, something to keep track of the faith's latest followers.
Friday prayers at the mosque have swelled following the Christchurch attacks.
Association president Riyaz Rehman says there's a sense of people wanting to come together more, to bond over their shared faith, to feel safe and a strength in numbers.
Those numbers were replicated during the religious holiday known as Eid, where Muslims come together to break their fast following the holy month of Ramadan.
"We need more space. We had 1500 people from around the region," he says.
Association member Zulfiqar Butt says the idea about grouping together potential new converts is so that they can band together to support each other in their newfound faith.
Butt has been buoyed by the upsurge in interest in Islam and says he hopes anyone who wants to know more will visit.
"There is certainly an increase," he says, from all backgrounds, with their own stories to tell.
"Even yesterday we were approached by a transgender person, wondering if they were welcome. And I said: 'Of course, you are very welcome'."
And he arranged one of the association's members to show them around and support them.
Colin says he's noticed a few new converts over the past few months.
"They're trying to get a convert group together so we can all meet up now and then, talk about the hassles and troubles we've had and how we can get through them."
Colin says he hasn't actually come face-to-face with the stigma he fears.
But he knows that stigma well – he was guilty of it himself.
When his niece married a Muslim man in Australia, he says he initially worried for her.
"But just through her, and seeing the change in her, it's changed my attitude, I suppose."
He didn't know any other Muslims and his only perception of them was a negative portrayal in the media.
"After the Christchurch thing, I think people are more understanding of Muslims. I mean there's always going to bad people in every religion, every community, and the Muslims, they just have a big heart, they get everybody together and it's just amazing. They call it the religion of peace."
In Colin's life today, only his kids and his boss know about his conversion to Islam.
He doesn't want his name or photo used for this story. Despite not suffering from any stigma or prejudice, he's worried about the response from those around him.
"It's been a very emotional time going through it, especially on my own. It has been hard sometimes, but like I said, the Muslim community is just so caring and giving."
Brought up in the Church of England through the foster-care system, Colin says he came to Islam when he was going through a tough patch and the niece who had married in to the religion sent him positive affirmations to lift his spirits.
One Friday, on a whim, he decided to head to the Cook St mosque in Palmerston North.
"It was a scary thing. It was packed, just absolutely packed. They looked at me as they went past, curious, like who is this person? Then straight after it finished I walked out. I was shy," he says.
"I just listened and watched. I did that for about two or three Fridays. It just gets into you. Then one day two of the brothers came up and introduced themselves."
"It's a really emotional thing. Just going and listening to them talking, it really touches you.
"I'm so pleased that I did, that I took that little step forward and went in. I'm the only Maori in there."
He officially converted during Ramadan last year and since then has been finding his way through his new faith.
"It has been a change. When I first started, I was just a Kiwi guy eating everything and anything, and I was there eating and one of the brothers came up and said: 'Excuse me, brother, we just eat with our right hand,'" he says, sheepishly.
He's learnt how to pray and experienced other lifestyle changes, such as understanding the Quran, food and language.
"My inner peace now is better than it used to be. I don't get as stressed out as I used to."
What does he wish ordinary Kiwis knew about Islam?
"The good things," he says, pausing due to emotion, his tears not far from spilling over his cheeks.
"Before I knew anything about Islam or Muslims, you see all these horrible things on TV and think the worst. But until you see that other side of them, you think: 'Oh there is more to these people.' It is amazing. They're beautiful people. Caring."
And despite the obvious pain and trauma caused by March 15, Colin is grateful the incident caused him to open up to his children.
"If that hadn't happened, they still probably wouldn't know," he admits.
"It was amazing at the vigil, the amount of people that were there, and the follow on afterwards.
"We still get people coming along and wanting to know more. It's just a shame it took something like that to happen, but people are finding out better things because of it. And it has made everybody stronger."
Original: Hello, Brother: Why Kiwis are converting to Islam
Source: The Stuff, Manawatu Standard