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updated 6/27/2010 2:31:20 PM ET 2010-06-27T18:31:20

To its detractors, the Al-Huda chain of Islamic schools across Pakistan is a driver of conservative Islam, especially among the secular elite. But to the thousands who attend its classes across the country, it is a blessing.

Take Mariam Afzal, who says she was once so selfish she would take up two spots in a parking lot without a second thought. Back then, she knew little about Islam beyond the basic rituals. A decade later, the 30-year-old credits Al-Huda with turning her into the veil-wearing Quran teacher she is today.

"It has really helped me become a better person," she says.

Al-Huda's popularity and rapid growth — and the criticism of it as a promoter of intolerance and gender segregation — is a sign of Pakistan's swing away from the moderate, Sufi Islam-influenced sphere of South Asia toward the more conservative, Saudi-influenced Middle East.

That swing comes as religious observance is on the rise in many other Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Indonesia, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. put a magnifying glass on Islam and its adherents.

The appeal of conservative Islam to the Pakistani elite — the same elite that gave Pakistan a female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto — has been brought into focus following the attempted car bombing in New York's Times Square on May 1. The would-be bomber and most of a dozen others held were from educated, wealthier segments of the mostly impoverished country.

Founder Farhat Hashmi started Al-Huda (Arabic for "guidance") in her home with a small group of students in the early 1990s. Now it caters to women and girls in Pakistan and in elsewhere, including the U.S. and Canada, where Hashmi now lives.

Al-Huda is distinct in several ways from other groups in Pakistan offering classes on Islam.

It offers a structured curriculum and a range of programs, a strong brand name and administration, and it was conceived and run by women from the start, instead of being a branch of a male-dominated institution.

At its main campus in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, women wearing uniforms of head scarves and long robes sit in rows and take notes as teachers lead lessons on the meaning of the Quran. Children scamper through the multistory facility. There's a library, concession stands, a range of pamphlets, books and audiotapes and even an 80-year-old member who acts as a therapist of sorts.

Women can sign up for full-fledged diploma courses, taught in Urdu and English, or they can be "listeners," just stopping by now and then. Schedules are flexible to attract working women, housewives and the young. Students can live on campus, and a bigger facility is being built on the edge of Islamabad.

Al-Huda administrators are vague on numbers, but Faiza Mushtaq, who is writing her dissertation on the movement, estimates at least 15,000 women have earned diplomas from Al-Huda in Pakistan alone since 1994.

Tuition fees are just a few dollars for three months of lessons, according to Mushtaq, and less for women who can't pay that much. Most of Al-Huda's revenue appears to come from sales of its materials and donations.

The school is particularly appealing because it teaches the Quran using Urdu and English translations as opposed to Arabic, which most Pakistanis don't know.

Its graduates, many of whom cover their faces and hair outside class, often return to their homes in distant cities and villages and start their own chapters of Al-Huda. Regular Al-Huda classes are held at dozens of branches in Pakistan, many of them run by a single graduate.

"My vision is that the Quran reaches everyone, because it is Allah's message to humanity," Hashmi, 52, said in an interview during a recent visit to Islamabad. Al-Huda is "a kind of women's empowerment program, and I think knowledge is the best way to empower women, especially spiritual knowledge."

Critics disagree.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear scientist and critic of hard-line Islam, has written about the spread of religious conservatism in Pakistan, and has pointed to Hashmi as one of its principal forces.

The face-covering burqa, once a rarity in Islamabad, now has stores specializing it, he notes. Hoodbhoy says Al-Huda is engendering a mindset of segregation and submission for women that is shredding Pakistan's cultural fabric.

"Through ceaseless proselytizing and subtle pressure tactics, Al-Huda has brought a majority of my university's students under the burqa," Hoodbhoy said in an e-mail. "In comparison with students of earlier decades, they are less confident, less willing to ask questions in class, and most have become silent note-takers. To sing, dance, play sports or act in dramas is, of course, out of the question for these unfortunates."

People who have studied Al-Huda say it promotes a literal, conservative approach to the Quran, but that it is not as rigid as it could be. While women are taught that covering their hair and avoiding music is what Islam requires, they also are encouraged to earn professional degrees.

Mushtaq, who is earning her Ph.D. from Northwestern University in Illinois, said she never heard Al-Huda condone violence, but that it could at times promote intolerance.

"I've heard some classroom discussions where they were talking about how to deal with Christians and Hindus. They weren't advocating violence, but just how one should stay away from them or convert them — a very, very patronizing and superior attitude," said Mushtaq.

But she noted that Hashmi and Al-Huda had also been criticized by conservative male Muslim scholars who question the teachers' credentials and rebuke Hashmi, a married mother of four, for traveling without a male guardian and lecturing on TV and radio. They even cast aspersions on women studying outside the home.

Several Al-Huda participants said they joined to know more about Islam.

"We don't know anything about our religion, actually, and I wanted to learn," said Salma Khokhar, a 40-year-old housewife who is one of the most active students in Afzal's English-language class. "Al-Huda has changed me a lot. I've lost 43 pounds. I feel very focused. I pray. I talk to Allah."

Uzma Azmi, 46, who grew up on the secular side of a family with mixed degrees of religiosity, used to think Al-Huda was too rigid. But after months of sitting in on classes, she now says the school's critics are uninformed and unwilling to look past the veils.

Azmi drapes a scarf over her hair during class, but not in her daily life.

"I'm not going to cover my head right now, and these people don't force you. It has to come from within," she said, adding, "I don't think I'd be willing to give up music." (She likes classic rock and early reggae.)

Critics complain that Al-Huda is silent on subjects such as violence against women, attacks on non-Muslims or Islamist terrorism wrecking the country. Al-Huda says it is not a political organization, and that it's more effective to foster a better society through teaching Islam than issuing press releases.

Hashmi, who has a doctorate in Islamic studies from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, expressed dismay about the violence in Pakistan, and said the people who carry out suicide attacks were "misusing the name of Allah."

Some say it may be that as Al-Huda's reach grows, Hashmi's more moderate views aren't transmitted that well by graduates who set up their own classes, especially in less affluent, more remote areas.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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