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Is Pakistani religious school a terrorist breeding ground?

by Kiran Nazish 

As federal investigators try to determine how San Bernardino, Calif., shooter Tashfeen Malik and her husband became radicalized, one possible clue lies within the controversial Al-Huda Institute in Pakistan, where she studied.

Al-Huda, a religious school for women, was established in 1994 by a couple who teach a conservative theology that some say spawns a radical Islamist mentality. The institute has branches in the United States and Canada with thousands of students, and it often hosts events around the world, from London to Dubai.

The Al-Huda branch in Englewood, N.J., has declined to comment. A branch inToronto temporarily closed this week when CBC News reported that several young Canadian women who studied there tried to join Islamic State extremists in Syria.

Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook were killed in a gunbattle with police after they killed 14 people and wounded 22 others at a San Bernardino public health facility Dec. 2. What prompted them to stage the massacre and any links to terrorist groups remain the source of an intense investigation.

Al-Huda, founded by Farhat Hashmi and her husband, Idrees Zubair, has no known ties to terrorist groups. However, Mufti Qamar ul Hasan, a prominent Sunni Muslimcleric based in Houston, says its teachings provide students extremist viewpoints that take them down dangerous paths.

“I do not believe she (Hashmi) is preaching the right way of Islam," he said. "She has distorted many ideas in her teaching that can mislead her followers into the kind of extremes Islam refrains from.

Nosheen Ali Irfan, 54, who lives in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, said she sent both of her daughters to study in Al-Huda during summer 2014 but within five weeks became disgruntled by the teachings and discontinued the lessons.

Irfan said her family has a religious background but the teachings at Al-Huda were “too radical” even for them. She said most students are unlikely to become extremists “if they come from stable and educated family backgrounds, but such teachings can also be miscalculated by students who are impressionable and vulnerable.”

“If there is an environment Jihadis (Islamic warriors) would come to recruit, it would be these kinds of institutions,” she said.

Al-Huda said in a statement following the shootings that it has no links to any "extremist regime" and seeks to promote a "peaceful message of Islam and denounces extremism, violence and acts of terrorism."

That is not the message found by Faiza Mushtaf, a sociologist who has taught atNorthwestern University and did her Ph.D. thesis on Al-Huda. She spent nearly two years studying different campuses of the institute and concluded that its teachings revolve around an interpretation of Islam that makes students rigid and extreme.

While Al-Huda aims to transform women into exemplary Muslims, it may go too far in some cases, Mushtaf said. "The one-sided interpretation of Islamic teaching makes students rigid ... which is why we have seen in institutions like Al-Huda and others, that have graduates who have later joined Jihad."

Fahim Gill, a lawyer from Malik's hometown of Multan, Pakistan, said Malik also may have been radicalized while attending Bahauddin Zakarya University. “The faculty here brainwashes students into extremist Islamic training," he said. "Among the inner circles, everyone knows that many staff in the university has strong connections with banned Islamist organizations.”

"Extremist groups associated with terrorism often pursue such institutions as key networking grounds for new recruits, and Tashfeen might have been one of them," Gil said. “We have all seen how (militant) groups ... have come to recruit here before, and the government of Pakistan needs to do more to stop this from growing.”

Courtsey---USA Today

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