Long before Al Huda Institute shot into the limelight for its links with Tashfeen Malik, one of the shooters in the San Bernardino killings, the conservative school was blamed by some in Pakistan for radicalising thousands of women -- including wives of civil and military officials.
Malik, 29, enrolled for an 18-month course on the Quran at an Al Huda centre in Punjab province in 2013. After she and her husband Syed Rizwan Farook shot and killed 14 people in California, Pakistani investigators named Al Huda for having played a role in Malik’s radicalisation.
Karachi-based Al Huda is run by controversial cleric Farhat Hashmi, who founded the organisation with her husband Idrees Zubair in 1994. Both are PhDs from Scotland’s famous centre of Islamic learning, the University of Glasgow.
Hashmi insists she is pursuing a moderate version of Islam but her detractors say Al Huda has had a role in radicalising thousands of women because of its conservative views.
Hashmi hails from Sargodha in Punjab province, where her parents were members of the Islami Jamiat Tulaba, and she is steeped in the “dars” (studies) of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Like the Jamaat-e-Islami, Al Huda too has the support of Pakistan’s military establishment and it is unlikely its followers will be questioned about their activities.
“It is unclear whether any investigation will be undertaken against Al Huda because the wives of a number of senior military officers are members of this group,” said analyst Khaled Ahmad, who has written about the organisation.
Al Huda has branches in many cities of the US and Canada, where thousands of adherents pursue their brand of Islam unhindered. It also has a branch in Bengaluru.
Hashmi migrated to Canada some 10 years ago to expand her network from there. Her followers are known for their hardline views and wear an all encompassing burqa of the type banned in parts of France.
In the past, activists linked to al Qaeda were apprehended from the homes of people allied to the Jamaat-e-Islami, and observers now fear that educated Pakistani women radicalised by organisations such as Al Huda could drift towards groups like the Islamic State.
According to a book on Hashmi, women members of Al Huda are turned against both the West and India. The belief that a denouncement of cultural practices and disapproval of Westerners and Indians helps women redefine their own identity as Muslims is part of the group’s teachings.
In her speeches, Hashmi has said she thinks Osama bin Laden is an Islamic warrior. Women were told that tens of thousands of Pakistanis died in the 2005 earthquake because they were involved in immoral activities and had left the path of Islam.
Questions linger about the activities and funding of Al Huda but Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have refused to conduct any inquiries.
“We are at this point not looking at religious organisations or their source of funding,” said interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. It was his ministry that refused to arrest Maulana Abdul Aziz, the imam of Lal Masjid who earlier this month declared a jihad against Pakistan’s democratic forces.
Aziz, and his wife who heads the Jamia Hafsa madrassa, pledged allegiance to the IS through a much publicised video in 2014.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has questioned the government’s motives for cracking down on international NGOs while staying silent on those funded by the Saudi Arabia and other Gulf state governments. Banking officials privately say organisations such as Al Huda and the Quran Academy, founded by cleric Asrar Ahmad, receive millions of dollars in funding from overseas Pakistanis.
In response to criticism, Hashmi said her institute cannot be held responsible for the acts of students. But former followers describe Al Huda and similar organisations as cults.
Al Huda adherents drastically change once they enrol in the institute’s classes and gradually reject their earlier set of friends and their way of life. They shun the companionship of more liberal and moderate Muslims. This happened in the case of Tashfeen Malik, whose friends at Bahauddin Zakarya University said she changed radically after she started attending Al Huda’s classes while studying for a degree in pharmacology at a university in Multan.
Habiba Yunus, once a follower of Al Huda, said adherents believe in conspiracy theories and students are led to believe Muslims are perfect, and this in turn means they are not taught how self-assessment as a Muslim is important. “Students are told the world is bad and Muslims are the best and that the former needs to reform itself,” she said.
“You cannot confuse their organisations with the Taliban or other militant groups,” said politician and activist Jibran Nasir. Organisations such as Al Huda and Quran Academy draw their strength from educated middle class Pakistanis who have turned radical and are considered born-again Muslims, he said.
“One day you see a couple in Western or Pakistani clothes and a normal middle class family, and the next day they have changed into growing beards and wearing burqas,” recalled a person whose said his friends transformed overnight.
A number of Al Huda and Quran Academy followers have found jobs in the West. “Many of them lead professional lives in the West but at the end of the day what they learn and believe in is in direct contradiction with the society they live in,” said Muhammad Arshad Husain, a professional who lives in Canada and has worked alongside some of these families.
One analyst described Al Huda and Quran Academy followers as “time bombs” in the West. There are fears that some will follow in the footsteps of Tashfeen Malik if more educated and middle class Pakistanis drift towards the IS after their radicalisation.