TORONTO — The Canadian branch of an Islamic foundation distanced itself Monday from the woman who carried out last week’s mass shooting in California following reports she had attended one of the group’s schools in Pakistan.
The Al Huda Institute Canada condemned the attack by Tashfeen Malik and her husband, which left 14 people dead and 21 wounded, and expressed concerns about a possible backlash against the foundation, which has been criticized for teaching a particularly conservative strain of Islam.
“Religious conservatism is one thing. You have people who are conservative in all faiths,” said Imran Haq, the institute’s operations manager. “Extremism is something completely separate and there is absolutely no strain of that here.”
The women-only institute, located in Mississauga, Ont., was founded in 2005 by Farhat Hashmi, a Pakistani scholar who lived in Canada at one point but hasn’t resided in the country “for many years,” Haq said.
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.
The Al Huda institutes have been thrown under the spotlight after it emerged that Malik attended a branch in the Pakistani central city of Multan.
The region where the school is located is home to thousands of extremist seminaries, with hundreds of them linked to al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban.
While Hashmi has been criticized for being very conservative, her schools, however, have no known links to extremists.
Malik spent more than a year at Al Huda, taking classes six days a week, but didn’t finish a two-year course to study the Qur’an, its translation and interpretation, the Pakistani school’s spokeswoman Farrukh Chaudhry said.
She was a student there from April 17, 2013 until May 3, 2014, when she handed in her last paper in the first-year curriculum, the spokeswoman said. Malik said she was going to get married and move to America, and promised to complete her studies by mail correspondence, but that never happened, Chaudhry said.
“I have talked to her teachers, her classmates and everybody says she was a hardworking, friendly, helpful and obedient student,” Chaudhry said, adding that “no one ever noticed any signs of radicalization.”
As the details about Malik’s connection to the school emerged, the Canadian branch of the Al Huda network defended its teachings, which it said did not preach extremism.
“We don’t have a very strong formal link with Al Huda Pakistan,” Haq said. “We are a religious operation within Canada and we are very much a part of that fabric and we feel like that, except that when you see stuff like this, in light of recent events, we start to get a little worried.”
Haq said the non-profit institute is looking at increasing security around its campus as its students and staff have expressed concerns about potential hostility towards Muslims.
Hashmi, who has given lectures at the institute in the past is “well-received” by students, added Haq, who said her teachings are “a lot more balanced than people give her credit for.”
“These are teachings that are very relevant to Muslims all around the world,” he said. “I think it’s up to every individual and their level of faith to kind of evaluate what she teaches and where on the spectrum it lies, but whether it’s conservative or not, it definitely doesn’t condone or promote the kinds of things we’re seeing around the world.”
Hashmi, who has a doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, said in a 2010 interview that Al Huda is “a kind of women’s empowerment program.” Her critics have said she promotes an oppressive form of Islam.
Malik and her American-born husband Syed Farook were killed in a shootout with police hours after they opened fire with assault rifles on a gathering of Farook’s colleagues last Wednesday in San Bernardino, Calif. The FBI is investigating the shooting as an act of terrorism.