Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi’s Among the Believers takes viewers to the frontlines of an ideological battle playing out in the Islamic world that receives little coverage in the Western media. Capturing both the desperate poverty of rural Pakistan and the claustrophobic urban sprawl of Islamabad, the film portrays the ongoing struggle between Islamic fundamentalism and moderate secularism in the Pakistani educational system. While several key figures in this conflict are touched on, it’s Abdul Aziz Ghazi, a radical Muslim cleric who runs a network of madrassas collectively titled the Red Mosque, who emerges both as the documentary’s most compelling character and its terrifying antagonist. Located throughout Pakistan, these religious schools boast approximately 10,000 students, whom the Red Mosque trains to spread Islam by jihad or proselytization in an effort to fulfill Ghazi’s vision of a revolution that would bring the entire country under sharia law. Affiliated both with ISIL and the Taliban, Ghazi openly declares that the purpose of the Red Mosque is to turn its child jihadists into mujahedeen to fight what he sees are Islam’s two greatest enemies: the Pakistani government, and secularism (in all of its guises) both within and beyond the nation’s borders.
The Red Mosque’s flagship madrassa is in Islamabad, a giant compound completely surrounded by barbwire, where classes are watched over by men wielding automatic rifles. One Pakistani news show calls it “the heart of militancy in the heart of Pakistan’s capital,” as most suicide attacks in Islamabad in the last decade have been connected to the Red Mosque. In 2007, it was heavily damaged during a standoff with government forces, which resulted in hundreds of deaths, including Ghazi’s brother, mother, and only son. The standoff is recounted late in the film, and it takes some work on the viewer’s part to place the event in the timeline of recent conflicts between the Red Mosque and the government, a fraught relationship of compromise and coercion that the film never quite resolves into a lucid picture.
The documentary argues that most of the Red Mosque’s students come from backgrounds of extreme poverty in the Pakistani countryside. Many of the students’ parents aren’t devout Muslims, yet they still choose to send their children to these madrassas because they provide them with free education, food, and shelter. But there’s a hidden price for receiving this religious education. Students are beaten if they try to leave the school, and many of them subsist on one piece of bread a day. The filmmakers inject a note of hope into this dire world in the form of secular schools that have begun to open in the countryside to compete with the Red Mosque, where students study math, English, science, and social studies. Unfortunately, while these schools provide a good education, they cost money to attend, and here the film functions as a kind of progressive infomercial, implicitly urging viewers to support these fledgling institutions however they can as a way to fight the spread of radical Islam in the region.
Also on this side of the struggle are educational activists like the nuclear physicist Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who are fighting to bring secular education to a larger percentage of the population, while denouncing the Red Mosque and its violent goals. Among the Believers excels at capturing the personalities and ideologies behind this vital struggle for the hearts and minds of Pakistan’s children. Hoodbhoy is an eloquent and persuasive speaker, but his argument lacks the raw emotional power of Ghazi’s appeal to the nation’s irrational reactionary elements, who’re completely deaf to any kind of logical or even self-interested reasoning. The film shows Hoodbhoy taking an active role in the 2014 anti-Red Mosque protests, which erupted after Ghazi defended the Taliban’s massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar, yet even here he fails to match Ghazi’s sheer charisma and chutzpah.
Ghazi insists that the Pakistani government is failing all of its citizens, only to reveal later in the film that the Red Mosque was itself established by the government, which hired his father as its first imam. The film also reminds us that institutions like the Red Mosque were heavily funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia at the end of the Cold War to train jihadists to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Footage shows President Reagan personally thanking these mujahedeen “freedom fighters” for their noble efforts. Ultimately, Ghazi and his fellow Islamist reactionaries reveal themselves to be welfare queens, joining al Qaeda and later the Taliban when American funding eventually dried up. The film also exposes Ghazi’s memorable stint as a drag queen. During the 2007 standoff with the government, the imam attempted to escape the Islamabad mosque by donning a burqa, but he was captured by government forces during his attempted flight and immediately rushed to a television station for a live interview. However, despite this piece of public shaming and his inflammatory comments following the Peshawar massacre, Ghazi still remains at large with a wide base of popular and financial support. Unfortunately, while the film ends on a hopeful note with the 2014 anti-Red Mosque protests, one is left with a premonition that Ghazi’s forces of violent extremism are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 15—26.
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