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Understanding the Al-Huda Ideology

By May 24, 2016 No Comments

The mass shootings on December 2, 2015 at San Bernardino country, California was shocking as the perpetrator duo, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farooq, shot and killed former colleagues celebrating a post-Christmas party at Inland Regional Center for people with developmental disabilities. Farooq had worked at the center for five years. Fourteen people lost their lives in that shooting while 21 were injured.[1]  Farooq, a county food inspector of Pakistani descent, was in fact employed at San Bernardino County’s Public Health department and many of the victims were his co-workers. Tashfeen Malik, his Pakistani wife, grew up in Saudi Arabia and studied pharmacy in Pakistan before marrying him and moving to the US in 2013.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) the self-proclaimed Islamic State (aka Dae’sh) quickly claimed the responsibility of the terrorist attack. The Al-Bayan radio of ISIS described the couple as their own and declared them martyrs; it further said “We pray to God to accept them as martyrs[2]”. Malik had posted a video of her pledge of allegiance to ISIS’s Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Facebook just before the attack.

Further investigations led the authorities to believe that the couple was inspired by ISIS ideology and a cache of explosives recovered from their home confirmed that the couple had plans for more terrorist attacks.  The couple had no history of violence or record of any other criminal activity. It was also revealed that the US-born Farooq was moderately religious but it is suspected that he turned to Islamist extremism only after his marriage to Malik in 2013[3] whom he met at an online matrimonial website[4].

The San Bernardino attack has once again brought to public attention the crucial subject of radicalization of US citizens at Islamist schools preaching radical ideology and supplying canon fodders to global Islamist terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Dae’sh. The primary question here revolves around the teachings and inspiration that paved the way for Malik’s radicalization. Did  her radicalization take place at the all-female Al-Huda seminary where she attended courses in Multan, Pakistan before marriage?

In another major incident, four Canadian girls left their families to join ISIS in Syria[5]. The girls had earlier attended the Al-Huda branch in Mississauga, Ontario[6]. To better understand the underlining reasons of Tashfeen Malik’s and the Mississauga girls’ radicalization, it would be pertinent to analyze and evaluate the ideology of Al-Huda International, the all-girls seminary which Malik and the girls attended in Pakistan and Canada.

Al-Huda: A Backgrounder

Al-Huda was founded by a former Jamaat-e-Islami[7] activist Farhat Hashmi in 1994. Prior to that Hashmi studied at Punjab University, Lahore where she received a Masters of Arts in Arabic. During her stay at Punjab University, Hashmi remained an active member of Islami Jamait-e-Talbaat[8] the women wing of Jamaat-e-Islami. After completing university, Hashmi’s ties further strengthened with the Jamaat when she married Idrees Zubair, a fellow member of Jamaat-e-Islami. Both moved to Glasgow, UK where Hashmi completed her PhD in Islamic Sharia and Hadith from the University of Glasgow. It is not clear whether the family received UK nationality during their prolonged stay in the UK.

Returning home as a female scholar of Islamic Sharia law, was indeed a feather in her cap. She fully capitalized on it and gained immediate fame as a preacher, scholar and self-proclaimed ‘Islamic feminist’ in a short span of time.

The primary medium of instructions at Al-Huda is Dars[9] (lectures/sessions), either designed in courses or in weekly or monthly series. The organization runs courses for women on subjects such as: Ta‘lim al-Qur’an (includes exegesis), Nazrah, Tajwid, Tahfiz al-Qur’an (recitation), Ta‘lim al-Hadith[10] Course, Manar al-Islam (character building course for girls), and Fahm al-Qur’an (readings of Quran from exegesis of Quran written by Jamaat-e-Islami founder Abul ala Maududi).

Currently Al-Huda has international branches in Canada, UK, India, US, UAE and Sri Lanka, whereas women ‘educational sessions’ are held in Pakistani cities of Sialkot, Karachi, Faisalabad, Multan, Manshera, Lahore, Islamabad, Attock, and Peshawar. According to its annual report of 2014, Al-Huda successfully held 16 courses. As part of the group’s new initiatives, special classes were held in Auckland, New Zealand, and Manama, Bahrain[11].

Hashmi’s Dilemma

Hashmi’s dilemma is her former association with Jamaat-e-Islami. She was born into a Punjabi family of Sarghoda district of Pakistan’s most populous Punjab province where joining Jamaat-e-Islami was a family tradition. Her father was also an ardent supporter and diehard worker of the party, and her sister a doctor by profession, remained an active member.  Hashmi went even further and married a Jamaat member.  Despite all her achievements at academic ventures at home and abroad, Hashmi apparently remained unsatisfied as her primary party could not do well at the polls[12]. Jamaat with all its organized Islamist network across Pakistan has always been convincingly defeated by secular, nationalist, leftist and centre-right political parties at the polls. The first general election in Pakistan was held in 1970 where Jamaat could only win 4 seats out of 300. The election results for Jamaat have remained almost the same since then and the urban-areas based Islamist party, despite all efforts and political maneuvering, could not manage to appeal to the Pakistani masses. It seems the Islamist notions which Hashmi has been trying to promote are not very different from Jamaat which shows that she still adheres to the same ideals. But she has considerably changed the tactics to attain the similar results as desired by the parent unit.

Like her parent organization the Jamaat, Hashmi is elitist in her approach to steer the institute. As Jamaat considers itself the vanguard of Islamic revolution, and targets an urban, middle-class, and educated audience, the Al-Huda policy is almost identical as it only approaches an audience belonging to upper-middle-class and upper-upper class strata of Pakistani society.

The Plan

Al-Huda’s plan is to reinvigorate medieval Islamist ideals, which Al-Huda founder and CEO Hashmi considers ‘pure, and true Islam’ while presenting them in a different brand acceptable to female students from elite backgrounds[13]. It is all about marketing an old idea wrapped in a new packing to a different class of audience. Hashmi’s apparent plan is long term. She preaches an ideology which is similar to other Islamist schools’ teaching in Pakistan such as Quran Academy of Dr. Israr Ahmad, Tableghe Jamaat of Tariq Jameel, and Jamaat ul Momineen. The agenda supports anti-modernity, anti-west, and implies positive imaging and branding of international Islamist terrorist organizations and their leaders, as Hashmi considers Osama bin Laden a warrior of Islam[14]. Her seemingly different strategy is elitist because her goal is to attract women of influential families in the urban centres of Pakistani cities. This is one reason all of her schools are located in either upper-upper class and or upper-middle class localities in the urban centre of Pakistan such as Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Faisalabad, and Multan.  The female attendees belong to the country’s business and industrialist community, and include wives, daughters, and sisters of top bureaucrats, judges and military officers, and teenage girls from influential families studying at the best institutions. The raison d’etre is to indoctrinate the women of upper strata of Pakistani society, the household women of the people who matter most in Pakistan and who then can influence their husbands, sons, brothers and other extended family members. Apparently the plan is to raise a new generation of Islamist children by indoctrinating their mothers.

The Ideology

Al-Huda ideology is primarily Salafist. The difference is that the institute is meant for women. Hence most of the ideological issues are related to women-only subjects which are part and parcel of broader Salafi dogma. As some of the Al-Huda students are highly educated women, Hashmi has included some quasi-westernized ideas as ‘Islamic Feminism’. The rest of the teachings are mostly derivatives of Salafi ideology.

Obedience to Husbands

Preachers at Al-Huda direct students to obey their husbands and submit to their commands and wishes as much as they can. One article available on Hashmi’s personal website How To Guard Your Husband’s Honor As Allah Has Commanded, discusses the role of married women as custodian of her man’s honor and that protecting the husband’s honor is “one of Allah’s commands for a Muslim wife[15]” and that a woman’s jihad is to please her husband[16]. Hashmi bases her arguments by cherry-picking Quranic verses without context, such as:

“Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them.” (Quran 4:34)

As per Al-Huda’s teachings, a wife must obey her husband’s commands especially concerning his sexual requirements and never say no in fulfilling his physical needs[17]. Hashmi does not believe in marital rape. According to one former student, Hashmi in her Dars believes angels would curse such woman who denies sex to her husband. Simply put, providing sexual services to her husband is her duty come what may[18]. The Al-Huda Online Books has published volumes on this subject, such as You Can be the Happiest Woman in the World: A Treasure Chest of Reminders, The Book of Wedding, Now You are a Mother, The Most Honorable Woman, Women in Islamic Shariah, and The Choice of Every Woman.

Selective Readings of Quran

Al-Huda’s focus is Quran but only the selective readings. In this sense, Al-Huda seems very similar to its parent organization Jamaat-e-Islami where in Fakri Nishast and Dars the senior members indoctrinate the recruits with selective readings of Quran without proper contextualization and historical background. Al-Huda’s focus remains on women’s issues and anti-modernism. According to her own website, Hashmi distinguishes her (‘what sets her apart’) on the basis of disseminating the real message of Quran i.e. understanding the Quran in simple language, enabling people to understand the Quran, integrating Islamic teaching in everyday life through the Quran, and developing a personal relationship with God.[19] (Though it appears that most of Dars-e-Quran sessions and courses are without contextual commentary and designed to Islamasize women while looking down upon other religions and sects of Islam.)

Rejection of Innovations and Sectarian Stances

Al-Huda teachings have a particular focus on rejecting innovations (biddah) and getting back to basic roots which has always been the foundation of its idealogy. Al-Huda’s pivot of criticism is Sufi Islam practiced by an overwhelmingly majority of Pakistani living in all four provinces. Sufi rituals such as visiting Sufi Shrines, celebrating the Milad[20], photography, rituals on matrimonial ceremonies, music, dancing and cultural traditions, are some of the activities which draw most of the bashings during Dars. Hashmi terms many of these customs and local traditions as Hindu traditions. In this manner Al-Huda appears to be quite close to Salafi Islam, the official sect of Saudi Arabia. Al-Huda has been accused of receiving funding from Saudi Arabia whereas the Al-Huda management considers this an allegation. As far as Shia Muslims are concerned Al-Huda promotes an intolerant view of Shias and develops a framework which depicts them as villains in Islamic religion. For example, Shia sect is presented as deviant and not doing enough for the ‘true Islam’.  One Al-Huda article describes Shias as:

Many Sunnis would contend that Shias seem to take the fundamentals of Islam very much for granted, shunting them into the background and dwelling on the martyrdoms of Ali and Hussein. This is best illustrated at Ashura when each evening over a period of ten days the Shias commemorate the Battle of Karbala, with a wailing Imam whipping the congregation up into a frenzy of tears and chest beating. It is alleged that  instead of missionary work to non-Muslims, the Shia harbor a deep-seated disdain towards Sunni Islam and prefer to devote their attention to winning over other Muslims to their group[21].”

Arabization and ‘us versus them’

Interestingly, while Al-Huda looks for students from affluent families, the management (i.e. Hashmi and faculty members) lock their targets only on women with minimal or no understanding of their religion and those who could hardly manage to question Al-Huda’s teachings[22]. As one former student remarked on the teaching style of Farhat Hashmi, “one thing I noted was her irritability when she did not like a particular question or when she was unable to answer it. She instead preferred to shut the person up who was asking the question[23].”

The new students are required to begin with the Dars (closed door sessions), which is followed by an invitation to formerly join Al-Huda and attend one of its courses (preferably Talim ul Quran). There are no dress code restrictions during first Dars and the lecturers also keep a mild tone on controversial subjects close to Al-Huda ideology. Instead importance is placed on basic Islamic values and ethics.  With the commencement of the course the new students are asked to change their attires and life style. They are required to wear Hijab, Niqab, Abaya or Burka not only during the classes but also making it part and parcel of their routine. The life style change is meant to discourage modernity and anything related to western values. The students are also required to disseminate the message of Islam (read Al-Huda) to their households and proselytize to their sisters, in-laws and friends in their circle, and bring them to Al-Huda.

A Looming Potential Threat

Farhat Hashmi does not condemn terrorism. During Dars at Al-Huda, terrorism is vaguely defined as Jewish and Christian conspiracy to weaken the Muslim Umma[24]. Juxtaposing to it the Al-Huda beliefs that Muslims are being deliberately targeted across the globe ‘only because they are Muslims’ and in a milder tone it justifies the Islamist terrorism – i.e. what other options do Palestinians have to respond to Israeli state terrorism?[25] Hashmi believes that more than 80,000 Pakistanis lost their lives in 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan because of their ‘immoral activities and deviation from Islam’[26].

According to Dr. Farzana Hassan of the Canadian Muslim Congress, “Farhat Hashmi runs al-Huda and denies that jihad is being taught there. She’s not telling the truth. I’ve listened to her podcasts in the Urdu language. She praises jihad and says women should participate. There is a possibility of impressionable young women hearing that and being radicalized[27].” Hashmi is known for her anti-western views and considers Osama bin Laden a ‘soldier of Islam’[28].

Conclusion

Clearly, Al-Huda is on the path of bringing about an Islamist revolution by indoctrinating women from influential families and future mothers of potential jihadis. This is exactly what Al-Huda’s inspirational organization Jamaat-e-Islami aims to achieve[29]. The modus operandi of Al-Huda may be different and narrow, but its goal and ambitions are mostly similar.

Although Al-Huda acknowledges Tashfeen as one of its students, it said “No organization can be held responsible for personal acts of any of its students[30].”

According to renowned Pakistani academic and expert on militancy and terrorism, Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, “I call Al Huda the fourth generation of religious seminaries. It does not promote use of violence but takes you closer to the red line. Now, it is a personal decision to cross the red line and take or give one’s life[31].” As well, Professor Sadaf Ahmad who wrote a book on Al-Huda, considers Hashmi’s ideology as “very intolerant and judgmental toward people who were different from them[32].”

Al-Huda’s plan is far grander than killing 14 people and sending some girls to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It is camouflaging its Islamist ideology under the garb of its semi-modern out-looks. The Al-Huda radicalization is slow and gradual and more convincing for the audience. It is deeper and Al-Huda’s plan is long term based upon raising a new generation of potential Islamists by radicalizing their mothers. The upcoming generation of Islamists appears to be more educated, and far more convinced because of their mothers’ influence upon them. The plan of raising a new generation of Islamist-from-the-cradle at such scale is indeed novel and Farhat Hashmi may be credited for such intelligently vicious planning. The radicalization of would-be mothers is apparently a generational Islamist plan devised by Farhat Hashmi – and possibly, achievable.