Desperate Journalism: Al-Huda International and San Bernardino.
One of the biggest catastrophes of the 21st century was the Iraq war and what followed. We are now aware that the then prime minister of Britain, Tony Blair, mislead the world into believing the existence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. He convinced the “International Community” that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to attack immediately. We have now come to know that all of this was not true. Blair has since apologised for his role in the “mistake”. According to a number of international estimates, over a million people lost their lives as a result of the war. Many have been asking for Tony Blair to be put on trial for war crimes. Whether Blair is directly guilty of causing a million deaths or not is not the question I am going to address in this piece. I am going to ask whether we should put Tony Blair’s teachers and the universities he attended on trial instead? Blair is known to have attended a number of reputable educational institutions. He attended the Chorister School in Durham from 1961 to 1966. He then boarded at Fettes College, a prestigious independent school in Edinburgh. Blair even attended the famous St. John’s College at the globally renowned Oxford University. Would it be fair to accuse all schools and colleges Blair attended for contributing to the Iraq disaster? Have news channels ever interviewed the teachers of Tony Blair for potentially influencing the Iraq genocide? Such an idea would be absurd. This is because we know schools and universities do not influence their students into committing atrocities. We do know, however, that many highly educated individuals have committed global outrages due to their political ends. We never accuse their teachers or universities for “potentially” influencing their actions. Why do we then point fingers at apolitical religious institutions for influencing insane actions of other individuals?
Anders Breivik killed close to a hundred innocent people in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks of the 21st century. Has any media outlet ever questioned the credibility of schools or colleges he attended? Do we ever question the churches some Christian fundamentalists may be visiting before carrying out attacks on abortion clinics in the US? How about questioning every single Buddhist monastery that gave training to the monks attacking innocent Rohingya people in Burma? It is reasonable to assert that individual actions will always remain individual unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary. If it can be shown conclusively that a certain school, college or university is systematically promoting extremism, then action must be taken against that particular institution. One cannot accuse all institutions of influencing the future conduct of all people who may have passed through the corridors of one of the faculties. One must look at the overwhelming majority of students and their conduct to form an opinion about the influences of any institution.
It was reported on 2 December 2015 that a Muslim couple, of Pakistani origin, carried out a deadly attack in San Bernardino (US), killing 14 people. The motives of the attack on a holiday party are still debated. Some are attributing the attack to “Islamic extremism”, while others are citing personal grievances as the reason. Some are even questioning the exact details of the entire incident. I am not going to indulge in the motives or details of the incident. Rather, I am going to address some lame attempts of assuming links where they do not exist. What happened is absolutely appalling and must be condemned under all circumstances. One of the Pakistani news outlets (Dawn), strangely enough, highlighted the fact that Tashfeen Malik, one of the alleged attackers, had temporarily attended the al-Huda Institute. She did not complete her program of study. The article appears to put much stress on the fact that Tashfeen had attended the Multan branch of the Pakistan based Islamic institution. Amazingly, the article also reveals that the accused had attended the Bahauddin Zakariya University (Multan, Pakistan) from 2007 to 2013. There is no particular stress on linking the alleged attacker’s actions to the university. I wonder what the article was trying to imply by stressing the fact that Tashfeen had attended the al-Huda Institute and the fact that the institute facilitates Islamic education for women? Perhaps there was an insinuation that somehow the institute might have something to do with the actions of an individual who studied at the facility temporarily. If there is an attempt to somehow point a finger at al-Huda or other internationally renowned Islamic institutions for promoting extreme ideologies then it can be called nothing but desperation on the part of the international Islamophobia industry. Why do we not put all educational institutions on trial for potentially producing corrupt politicians, eloquent hate preachers (like Donald Trump) and other global criminals?
I have personally visited al-Huda Institute in Pakistan and have had the pleasure of meeting some of the teachers and managers. I found them to be some of the most morally upright and principled people in the country. They were all, without exceptions, a very peace loving and progressive bunch. Their curriculum is very simple and does not even have the slightest touch of any extremist ideas. They teach simple Islamic courses and do not promote any political ideologies. They have taught hundreds of thousands of Pakistani women on Islamic ethics and the results are absolutely amazing. Some of the women, educated at al-Huda, have become better citizens and have contributed immensely to the social fabric of Pakistan. The list of professionals attending al-Huda includes doctors, teachers, government officials, charity workers etc. I have personally met individuals who have inspired me by their impressive conduct. My own sister attended al-Huda temporarily and the institution only made her a better person. If anything, some members of al-Huda staff themselves have been victims of extremism and now they are targets of an Islamophobic campaign of demonisation. Perhaps the media should focus on the great achievements of this institution for promoting peace, love and harmony in Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of women have been educated but all that was ignored. Surprisingly, some journalists could only find a random act of a disturbed individual to allege a non-existent influence. Is this what we call moral journalism?
It is very perplexing to find the al-Huda Institute in the middle of this controversy, especially when the institute has pioneered the giant task of educating thousands of women. More education for women means a healthier society. Critics of Islamic institutions are quick to attack male dominant societies for not doing enough to educate women. It seems it is not education some critics of Islamic institutions want otherwise there would be global calls to vindicate institutions like al-Huda. Nevertheless, this noble institution is playing an instrumental rule in reviving one of the often underestimated pillars of the Islamic Civilisation: women scholars. The ‘Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilisation’ series published a work by Asma Sayeed, titled ‘Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam’ (2015). I strongly recommend this volume for anyone interested in understanding one of the classical Islamic traditions institutions like al-Huda may be reviving.
Finally, the media must report responsibly and not paint the solution as the problem. It is clear that some have a deep-rooted hatred of Islamic education and for this reason they take advantage of every opportunity to attack religious schools. Informed research, however, only proves the necessity of more Islamic education so that people do not end up committing atrocities. Those who accuse peace-loving people of instigating extremism are themselves extremists. Just as we do not link non-Muslim criminals with their respective educational backgrounds, we should not link every Muslim culprit with his school or college. Crime is crime; it does not have a religion. People kill for different reasons. Some do it for political ends, others do it due to personal grievances. Some actually plan out their atrocities in sophisticated ways; others simply do it without much thinking. Some murderers are very intelligent, others are simply not well mentally. If one were to draw a chart of criminals from different human groups and religious affiliations, no one would escape the erroneous charge of fostering extremism. Atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sunni, Shia, Salafi, Sufi etc. all have their black sheep. None of the groups is free from individuals who might have committed crimes. Can we accuse an entire ideology for the crimes of a few? One cannot accuse the entire country, city, town or school for the crimes of an individual. Just as we do not question secular institutions for potentially producing some of the biggest mass murderers in history, we must avoid linking every random act of criminality with religious schools.