A frightening look at the consequences of religious extremism in Pakistan with remarkable access.
Among the Believers (Tribeca Review)
The dispute over how to properly contend with terrorism skews toward ideological talking points in favor of a discussion about the people involved with terror. While terror is a global issue whose ramifications can be far-reaching, the actions taken by a terrorist are motivated by specific situational causes. Among the Believers ventures to personify those most directly affected by terror, speaking with Pakistanis who are both for and against extremist causes. From the hotbed of terror in Islamabad, the filmmakers of this new documentary gained unprecedented access inside infamous The Red Mosque, home to chief cleric and sharia law advocate Maulana Aziz, a fervent supporter of jihadist warfare. The chilling movie, making its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a shocking examination of the extremist movement in Pakistan.
Among the Believers hones in on the volatile situation in Pakistan by profiling a series of individuals that have differing relationships to Islamic terrorism. Most notable is Al-Qaeda supporter Maulana Aziz, who is shown leading the Red Mosque congregations in anti-Western chanting as well as literally pocketing money that’s been donated to the mosque. Aziz’s role isn’t simply to inspire violence and hatred among his followers; he’s also a prominent religious figure and thus a community leader. A young child stands in his office reciting jihadist rhetoric, then turns to Aziz looking for confirmation. When an elderly man approaches for charity, Aziz pulls from his pocketed stash of cash in order to help. These moments help to illustrate how a man capable of disgusting evils can endear himself to the public.
Many of the supporters for The Red Mosque become indoctrinated by the most extremist views of Islam in Pakistan’s madrassas. These seminaries offer to host, feed, and educate Pakistani children in the Quran for free, as opposed to Pakistan’s school that require children to live at home and parents to pay for the costs. As a result, the amount of madrassas across Pakistan has grown from 3,500 to 40,000 since launch of the Afghan war. While the madrassas plays an integral role in allowing Pakistani parents to give their children healthy lives, Among the Believers shows how many times these parents are unaware of the lengths to which their children are exploited.
In the madrassas, children spend all day memorizing the Quran. “We don’t know the verse’s meanings, we only memorize them,” says Talha, a young boy interviewed for Among the Believers. Like most children in the madrassas, Talha comes from a poor, rural area and had parents who were moderate Muslims looking for a good place for their child. By the time Talha’s father wants to remove him from the madrassa, Talha refuses, stating that if his father is wrong he won’t listen to his father’s orders.
The danger is documenting such unsettling material is slipping into fear-mongering territory, but Among the Believers steers clear of damning Pakistan or Islam as a whole. Sections with the 12-year-old Zarina, a young girl who escaped her madrassa in order to return home, demonstrate that even Pakistani youth can sometimes recognize the faults in the jihadist mentality. Amongst the other featured interviewees is nuclear physicist and education activist Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who speaks out elegantly against extremism. During a particularly representative scene, Maulana Aziz and Hoodbhoy argue in a TV interview over the justification for recent acts of terrorism. Their ardent commitment to opposing sides of the debate underlines the inevitability of more conflict. Both sides feel deeply wounded and are unwilling to wave a white flag.
Among the Believers highlights the saddening, cyclical nature of the issues surrounding religious extremism, not just in Pakistan, but around the world. One problem feeds the next, and no one fix will alleviate years of mutual damage. Though it’s possible to find hope in Pakistanis continued pushback against the jihadist fervor bred by the Red Mosque and Maulana Aziz, the overriding realization is that these conflicts often reach an unbreakable impasse. Among the Believers exhibits the fraught situations that can cultivate an extremist ideology.