First published in The Times – 14/12/2015
Briton Aliyah Saleem recalls her life at the Islamic women’s institute which also educated the San Bernandino killer.
This year, as British Muslim schoolgirls left to join Isis in Syria, I thought back to when I was a 17-year-old fundamentalist and wondered seriously if I’d have joined them. I certainly fitted the template: unhappy at home, bored and a fervent believer in the most rigid, literalist form of Islam.
Then when Tashfeen Malik, a Pakistani woman, along with her US-born husband, Syed Farook, used automatic weapons to shoot down 14 people in San Bernardino, California, I realised we had even more in common. Like Malik, 29, I studied at the Al-Hudaa institute for Muslim women in Pakistan, which also operates in the USA and Canada. It is run by Dr Farhat Hashmi, a female Islamic scholar who is treated with guru-like reverence. Whether the school laid down the foundation for Malik’s crimes I cannot say — they certainly did not preach violence there — but it left me on the brink of radicalisation.
I was 15 when I was expelled from a private Muslim faith school in Nottingham, which I wrote about last year in The Times. I was a bolshie, rebellious, free-thinking girl who balked at rigid Islamic rules: compulsory hijab, no mobiles, newspapers, internet or mixing with non-Muslims. I challenged the teachings in our Saudi-bought books which decried homosexuality, permitted men to beat their wives and denied evolution. Kicked out of the school for owning a disposable camera, I found myself back home and in disgrace.
So when it was suggested I go to Canada to attend the Al-Hudaa school for a one-year intensive Koranic interpretation course, I was just glad to escape. Since mosques are principally male environments, the college aimed to create a place for women to acquire Islamic scholarship. I arrived in Toronto to join classes in which I was by far the youngest pupil: the other women ranged up to their fifties, were educated and middle class. The “hostel” in which overseas students stayed was actually a beautiful house.
Hashmi herself taught us, and my fellow pupils worshipped her. They chastised me for using her name: I was supposed to call her “Ustatha”, which means teacher. Fully veiled except when teaching, she had a calm, slow and melodious voice. Students were rapt in her presence and bought tapes of her speeches.
The Islamic interpretation she taught was literalist and evangelical: we women must submit to God, go back home and inculcate others with the same rigid values. Be good wives, cover your bosom, be modest, chaste and pious and don’t mix with men. Women who attended Al-Hudaa would often irritate their families on their return by berating everyone for not being devout enough.
However, the Canadian course was in Urdu, which I speak poorly, so I decided to transfer to an Al-Hudaa course in Pakistan that was taught in English and Arabic. Here the regime was much more spartan: we slept on thin mattresses on the floor in a former student’s house. This was where “western” students slept: we were allowed our laptops and phones, luxuries denied in the Pakistani girls’ hostel. There were 15 students in my hostel from Canada, China, Britain and the US.
Later we were allowed to make trips to Islamabad and Lahore. My parents were from Pakistan, although I was born and raised in north London. It was great for once not to feel in a minority. I was surprised, however, by how few women were on the streets. As time went by, I started to embrace stricter gender segregation.
The classes involved endless hours spent going through each verse of the Koran one by one, learning its context and why it was revealed. The teachers made it clear they would not force us to do anything but that we would submit to God once we had absorbed his message. I was not religious when I enrolled and still challenged Islam, yet my initial boredom and disdain turned to bright-eyed zeal.
The classes were intense, repetitive and rigid. A constant stream of religion, day after day. The all-female environment suffused the students with emotion, sometimes bordering on hysteria. Women would often weep, overcome by religiosity. We were constantly taught that this path was our choice, but also that not choosing it was the way of sin. Gradually, perhaps because I was far from my family, young and troubled, and my education in Britain had provided me with little secular knowledge, I was completely sucked in.
There is a particular verse that concerns wearing of the veil that was known to be an emotional highpoint for students. “You’ll cry,” everyone said and I’d think they were mad, but when we came to study it I wept. I felt so overwhelmed that I walked out of that classroom and took up the full niqab, revealing only my eyes.
I wore it for almost a year, with black gloves and socks, even in the heat. I lowered my gaze, spoke quietly in public, shuffled along, invisible, apart from society. I thought I had found the true faith and in my self righteousness felt entitled to upbraid others for being less zealous. I shouted at a friend for wearing a red hijab.
Muslims are expected to pray five times a day, but I prayed six. Up in the middle of the night performing my additional prayer, I’d weep for my parents, my siblings, everyone I knew, because they were going to Hell and I needed to win them over to the true path too. I’d changed my life — now I must change theirs. Only in retrospect do I realise that essentially I’d been brainwashed into something resembling a cult.
This is what I believe that Malik, who finished her degree in pharmacology a star pupil then went to study at the Al-Hudaa college in Multan, Pakistan, went through too. She left deeply religious, fully veiled, eager to destroy all photographs of herself, not just because men might see them but — as we were taught — all representations of living things, including people, were idolatrous.
I must stress that the Al-Hudaa did not preach violence. While I was in Pakistan, a bomb was set off in the local market by extremists. No one at the college supported this attack. We studied the Koranic verses on jihad, however, in the context of the Prophet Mohammed engaging in holy war. Any future application of jihad by modern Muslims was left open-ended.
I feel that Al-Hudaa’s literalist, conservative interpretation of Islam, which discouraged criticism or dissent, built a fire. It laid down the kindling, the twigs, the wood, ready for a match. And the flames swept in from two directions. First, from geopolitical events: the discourse of Muslim oppression that has gained force across the world, which Isis, among others, utilises so powerfully. Yet it also requires an internal fire, something within an individual that will ignite fundamentalist theology into violent action.
Most women who leave the Al-Hudaa institute are zealous for a while, but the sheer intensity requires so much emotional energy that it invariably fizzles out. This happened to me as I tried to remain religious and deal with re-emerging doubts from my childhood. I felt suffocated by the ultra-conservative life that I was living, as well as by society’s expectation of me to be an ideal religious woman.
Back in Britain I removed my veil: I planned to go to college and worried I wouldn’t make friends or would stand out too much. It is also not commonly worn in my family, so I faced no pressure. I adopted the head scarf and a floor-length dress instead.
A year after I left Al-Hudaa, my journey towards leaving Islam began when I studied feminism at college and, after discovering atheists online, read about evolution. After spending a year researching non-religious and religious arguments, I decided that I no longer believed there was any evidence for God’s existence.
I lost many friends as a consequence and my family found my atheism difficult, but almost a decade on we have a very good relationship. I co-founded an organisation called Faith to Faithless, which supports apostates of all religious backgrounds who can face isolation and ostracism.
Yet there was a time when I was lonely, isolated, a troubled girl with nothing but my all-encompassing faith, when I know that a spark could have been ignited within me. I walked on. Tashfeen Malik lit the fire.