Al-Huda, Tashfeen, and the massacre

December 10, 2015

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Tashfeen Malik. —AP
Tashfeen Malik. —AP

A young mother who attended a religious school for women in Pakistan weds a conservative man. Months later, the two are accused of murdering 14 and injuring many more in an unprovoked attack in San Bernardino, California.

What made her leave diapers for rifles?

Tashfeen Malik, the young mother and the co-accused in last week’s massacre in California, attended the religious teaching centre Al-Huda’s regional branch in Multan. Though, Ms. Malik left before completing her studies, acquaintances report her becoming religiously conservative after enrolling at Al-Huda.

The Al-Huda International Welfare Foundation has distanced itself from Ms Malik by posting an official statement on their website:

Tashfeen Malik had studied at Al-Huda International’s Multan branch for a brief period between 2013 and 2014. She left without completing the Diploma course. No organisation can be held responsible for personal acts of any of its students.

While there has been no publicised connection as yet between the institute and the shooting, the Canadian branch of Al-Huda abruptly shut down Tuesday citing security concerns.

The Centre has been controversial from the very beginning — in 2014, three of the Centre’s former students of Somali heritage, aged 15 to 18, left homes for Syria to join the militant Islamic State (IS) group. The Turkish authorities intercepted the girls and returned them to their parents in Canada.

The Canadian authorities are concerned about the extent to which the teaching at Al-Huda Centre inspired the teenage girls to leave their parents for IS militants in Syria.

Oscar winning documentary producer, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy expressed similar concerns 10 years ago in an op-ed in The Globe and Mail, titled: ‘Islamic school for women faithful or fundamental?’

Also read: Tashfeen’s relatives speak of their ‘shame’ over mass killing

Ms Obaid-Chinoy interviewed the matriarch running the Al-Huda enterprise, Dr. Farhat Hashmi, in October 2005 soon after a devastating earthquake killed 85,000 and destroyed entire cities in northern Pakistan. Dr. Hashmi was lecturing her students in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, about what caused the devastating earthquake in the country.

“The people in the area where the earthquake hit were involved in immoral activities, and God has said that he will punish those who do not follow his path,” she told her Canadian audience comprising entirely of young women.

Such thinking would suggest that perhaps Dr. Hashmi is not very well-educated. Quite the contrary.

Both she and her husband earned doctorates in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Glasgow in 1989. Their dissertations (both titles start with “A critical edition of …”) were supervised by Professor John Mattock and focussed on the sources of Hadiths.

The government of Pakistan funded Dr. Hashmi’s studies.

Also read: California shooting — Female assailant became hardline in S. Arabia, say relatives

Given her academic credentials, one would assume that she followed an academic path afterwards. There is, however, little evidence of her scholarly work in academic publications. Still, her credentials inspired another Globe and Mail columnist, Sheema Khan, who in September 2004 praised Dr. Hashmi.

“Ms. Hashmi’s soothing style articulates a message of personal reform. She reminds listeners of God’s mercy and forgiveness — in stark contrast to the dire warnings of hell fire favoured by some mullahs …” wrote Ms. Khan. Obviously, this column appeared a year before Ms. Hashmi established her Centre in Canada and accused the earthquake victims in Pakistan for attracting God’s wrath for their sinful ways.

Dr. Hashmi’s name resurfaced in January 2011 when an audit of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) revealed mismanagement of no less than $600,000.

The audit found that only a “very small portion ... is distributed to the poor and needy and the major portion is spent on the administration of the centre.” The audit also found that while Dr. Hashmi was not an employee of ISNA, she was on its payroll.

“This is a serious violation of the (Canadian Revenue Agency) rules and immigration rules to hire someone just in the books to help get through immigration,” The Toronto Star quoted the auditor’s report.

Dr. Hashmi eventually filed a court case in Canada in 2006 (F.C.J. No. 1674) after her request for a work permit was declined by a visa officer.

According to the court documents filed by her attorney, she originally arrived in Canada in June 2004 with her family on a visitor visa. She was invited by the ISNA to deliver a series of lectures. She stayed in Canada until January 2005 and returned in April 2005; her request for a work permit was denied.

She was, though successful in obtaining a judicial review of her application because the judge found that the immigration officer had “erred in a review-able manner” in rejecting her application.

Also read: How deep-rooted are jihadists in Canada?

Unlike the Darul Aloom Haqqania in Akora Khattak, which is famously known as the ‘jihad factory’ for graduating numerous Afghan Taliban leaders, Al-Huda’s connection with extremism and militancy among young Muslim women in Canada and Pakistan is not known with any certainty. But, given that Tafsheen studied there, it would be wrong to ignore, not highlight, or not thoroughly investigate the institute on the grounds that it has not been connected to extremism yet.

What inspired Tashfeen Malik to abandon her six-month old daughter and spray bullets on unarmed civilians is not clear. This should not be a matter of mere speculation anymore. It is becoming increasingly pertinent to find the underlying cause, to fill in these large gaps in the narrative.

We need to know where and how the radicalisation took place.