British-born co-founder of Faith to Faithless, an ex-Muslim, Aliyah Saleem, reminisced about her time at Al-Hudaa, the same Islamic women's institute where Tashfeen Malik, the "California shooting" killer had studied. Aliyah Saleem spoke to The Times newspaper about her life as a devoted Muslim girl.
Speaking about Tashfeen Malik, Saleem said, “Like Malik... 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.”
Aliyah Saleem used to be a rebellious 15-year-old with a mind of her own. She would challenged the teachings of books which had clear distinctions of gender roles, and what was permitted and forbidden for women. She was expelled from a private Muslim school, in Nottingham, for owning a disposable camera. Some of the school's rules included the compulsory vesture of hijab, no internet, mobiles, newspapers and no mixing with non-Muslims.
It was then suggested that she goes to the Al-Hudaa school in Canada, to attend a one-year intensive Koranic interpretation course. She liked the idea of going to Canada at that stage in her life. She described how she would be engrossed in what she was being taught. “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... I was completely sucked in.”
She had even worn the veil for nearly a year, ensuring that she wore socks and gloves. A dedicated Muslim would pray 5 times a day, but Aliyah prayed six, so that her family followed the true path. “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.”
Once she returned back to Britain, she removed her veil, but adopted the hijab and a more modest form of dressing. A year after leaving Al-Hudaa, she began questioning the existence of God while studying Feminism at college. She then decided to leave her religion and no longer believed that God existed.
Aliyah had initially faced isolation, but ten years on, those close to her are at good terms with her choice of life. Knowing what isolation felt like, she co-founded Faith to Faithless to help those who are atheists or agnostics, who constantly face isolation and shunned out.
Remembering her time as a stout Muslim teenager at the Islamic school, she said, “Only in retrospect do I realise that essentially I'd been brainwashed into something resembling a cult.”
It would be completely wrong to even suggest that religious schools can turn someone into an extremist or terrorist. Here are two cases of Aliyah Saleem and Tashfeen Malik. Both were engrossed in the teachings at Al-Hudaa. Both turned out completely different from one another. One cannot exactly blame the teachings as well, as how one imbibes information is very diverse. It depends on one's perception; how one perceives or understands information is not guaranteed to be exactly the same, even if the teachings taught to them are identical.