TORONTO — The Canadian branch of a controversial Islamic foundation suspended classes over safety concerns Tuesday following a report that four of its former students left Canada to join a terrorist group in Syria.
The Al Huda Institute Canada said it closed its doors after CBC News reported that one woman who attended its religious classes left to support ISIL while three others also left for the country but were intercepted by Turkish authorities and sent back to Canada.
The institute said it first heard about the allegations on Monday night.
“Law enforcement authorities have never brought forward any allegations that four girls associated with the institute travelled to join terrorist organizations,” said Imran Haq, the institute’s operations manager.
“In addition, the institute has no knowledge as to the identity of these individuals and as such, cannot confirm whether or not they were enrolled in the institute, for how long, or any other related information.”
Haq said the institute was “committed” to working with authorities to address the allegations. It’s unclear when the former students are alleged to have travelled overseas.
The institute, located in Mississauga, Ont., was first thrust into the spotlight on Monday after it emerged that the woman who carried out last week’s mass shooting in California attended one of its affiliate religious schools in Pakistan.
That led the Ontario-based school to publicly distance itself from Tashfeen Malik and her husband, condemn their attack which left 14 people dead and 21 wounded, and emphasize that there was a difference between religious conservatism and extremism.
“Al Huda Institute Canada provides authentic Islamic knowledge which is based on compassion, mercy, and tolerance,” Haq said. “It unequivocally condemns violence and terrorism.”
The institute runs religious courses for women, but also runs a private elementary school.
The attention the school has received this week has put staff and students “at risk of backlash,” Haq said. The institute has contacted local police with their concerns, and are receiving support from them, he said.
The institute’s elementary school is registered with the province, but Education Minister Liz Sandals noted that such private institutions are not required to hire accredited teachers or have the Ontario curriculum.
“We literally have no oversight over elementary private schools,” she said. “I do not have any legal authority to tell an elementary private school what to teach.”
The institute in Mississauga was founded in 2005 by Farhat Hashmi, a Pakistani scholar who once lived in Canada. It is among a number of branches across Pakistan, the U.S. and the U.K. which all teach ideology and principles she has promoted.
Hashmi, who has a doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, has been criticized for being very conservative and promoting an oppressive interpretation of Islam.
Haq has defended Hashmi, saying her teachings have been “well-received” by students and are “relevant to Muslims all around the world.
The Al Huda International Welfare Foundation has spoken out since its link to the California shootings surfaced, saying Malik seemed “unable to understand the beautiful message of the Qur’an.”
“We cannot be held responsible for personal acts of any of our students,” said the statement posted on Hashmi’s and the foundation’s website. “The organization stands to promote the peaceful message of Islam and denounce extremism, violence and acts of terrorism.”