constantly claim Islamist madrassas are nothing to worry about. They are simply
“schools.” While that might be a literally translation, it deliberately
obscures the practical meaning. Throughout Pakistan, the Red Mosque’s network
of Wahhabi madrassas act as incubators for virulent extremism, molding their
students into fanatics and with shocking regularity, suicide bombers. Viewers
meet the Red Mosque’s radical mastermind and his leading critic face-to-face in
Hemal Trivedi & Mohammed Ali Naqvi’s Among
the Believers (trailer
which screens during AFI Docs 2015.
Aziz Ghazi radiates the absolute certainty of evil. A supporter of the Taliban
and ISIS, he advocates imposing strict Sharia law uniformly and despises
secular government, especially that in Pakistan. This is somewhat ironic, since
his father founded the Red Mosque at the behest of the Pakistani government and
he still probably counts on considerable support from Islamist elements within
the intelligence service. When not sending out self-immolating terrorists into
the world (maintaining the thinnest shreds of plausible deniability), Ghazi
ruins lives one child at a time.
education provided at the Red Mosque madrassas guarantees their students a life
of marginalization. Forget math and science. They are only taught to memorize
the Koran, but not what its passages mean. Even if they were not radicalized to
the point socially productive lives are impossible, they are not taught any
employable skills, thus perpetuating the cycle of futility and resentment.
Ghazi can talk a good game. Despite his clashes with the government, he regularly
scores points with the media. His most intrepid critic is Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy,
a nuclear physicist. Frankly, the words “Pakistani nuclear scientist” look a
wee bit troublesome together, but it is reassuring to know Dr. Hoodbhoy is on
the side of civilized, tolerant society.
is loads of potentially dramatic material in Believers, but it is not well served by the filmmakers’ unyielding
commitment to their observational approach. Ghazi’s severe religious ideology cries
out to be challenged, but the only time that happens is in a highly structured television
debate with Dr. Hoodbhoy, conducted over the phone. Nevertheless, you have to
give Dr. Hoodbhoy credit for standing up to his harsh rhetoric.
this underscores the film’s weakness, presenting both men’s position and then
largely shrugging. Frankly, they do not spend enough time with the victims of
the Red Mosque, like Zarina, who ran away from her abusive madrassa and now
attends a school that provides education rather than religious indoctrination.
Even when they do provide wider context, like the Taliban massacre of 132 school
children in Peshawar, the filmmakers never ask Ghazi the obvious follow-up
Despite its intentional limitations, Believers is often an eye-opening cinematic
dispatch from a deeply troubled nation. Clearly, Ghazi’s outfit is far better
organized than the Pakistani government, which is depressing. Yet, the mere
existence of Dr. Hoodbhoy and the hundreds of thousands of concerned Pakistanis
who came out to protest the Peshawar Massacre is encouraging. It is one of the
few documentaries chronicling contemporary Pakistan that does not leave us
completely bereft of hope, but it still does not leave a lot of room to work
with. Revealing but frustratingly passive, Among
the Believers is worth a look anyway when it screens this Friday (6/19) and
Sunday (6/21) at AFI Docs, following its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film
Labels: AFI Docs '15, Documentary, Pakistan