Among the Believers is a powerful and thought-provoking documentary that explores the deep political and ideological divisions between Pakistan’s moderate progressive Muslim population and a well-organized and violent jihadist movement determined to institute strict Sharia law. The film presents a complex vision of modern day Pakistan, one which Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a prominent educator and activist, notes has been rendered “barely recognizable.” Indeed the country seems hopelessly torn between hard line jihadists willing to give their lives in the pursuit of what they believe to be an Islamic utopia and those Pakistani citizens espousing a more modern, tolerant, and inclusive version of the Muslim faith.
Early in Among the Believers, viewers are given an intimate look at the controversial Red Mosque and its notorious leader Abdul Aziz Ghazi. Given this radical cleric’s violent history and oppressive views on women and Western culture, it would’ve been easy to portray Ghazi simply as a one dimensional villain. Instead, the filmmakers opted to include a number of telling glimpses into this individual’s personal history, including the murder of his father and the death of his son. During various interviews Ghazi reveals his militant fervour and ardent belief that the only way Pakistan will ever achieve peace is through the implementation of Sharia law.
The core strength of Among the Believers lies in the way in which directors, Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi, are able to portray a variety of Pakistani citizens as multi dimensional human beings and not mere stereotypes. Their personal stories are used to illustrate the real life consequences of an array of complex social, political, and religious issues. Perhaps the most telling aspects of the documentary are the stories of two children; Zarina, a girl from a poor rural family who managed to escape from one of the radical jihad schools (known as madrassahs) and Talha, a boy dropped off at one of the militant Red Mosque seminaries as a means of being educated, housed, and fed at no cost to his parents. Both children illustrate in a very human and personal way the way in which deeply rooted social problems such as poverty and gender inequality play major roles in the lives of modern day Pakistani citizens.
Zarina’s story is particularly heartbreaking as this strong young woman attempts to reconcile her Muslim beliefs with the oppression she faces. This oppression is not only from the powerful jihadist movement but also exists in relation to long-held cultural customs and an environment in which girls are perceived as liabilities to be married off even before they reach adulthood. Despite her yearning to get an education, Zarina seems doomed to live a life similar to that of her mother, a woman with nine children, limited opportunities, and meagre resources.
Talha’s story further illustrates how strict rules are imposed on members of the Pakistani populace based on their gender. According to Abdul Aziz Ghazi and his followers, boys have a duty to memorize the Quran and become soldiers for the cause while girls must wear a traditional burka, marry, and have children.
Talha’s journey begins when he’s delivered to one of the madrassahs despite the fact that his family isn’t particularly religious and his father freely admits that he doesn’t know exactly what goes on at the seminary. Gradually the boy undergoes a massive shift in terms of his belief system as he’s systematically broken down and brainwashed. From the start it’s clear that the so-called education provided at the madrassah consists solely of endless memorization of the Quran. During one particularly emotional scene, Talha and several of his fellow students express an interest in watching a popular cricket game on TV, an activity that’s strictly prohibited. For a brief time viewers are able to see Talha for who he is, a boy similar to millions of other boys around the world, who just wants to have fun and cheer on his favourite sports team.
The entire madrassah system is put under a microscope in Among the Believers as the filmmakers aptly illustrate how the top priority of these institutions isn’t the welfare of the children but rather the recruitment of soldiers in the holy war. To further underscore the influence of these institutions, one scene features a teacher who, upon entering a room filled with young boys reciting the Quran, makes the comment that the children “are really malleable at this age”.
Among the Believers makes it evident that under Sharia law, Pakistani women are subject to harsh restrictions regarding every aspect of their lives.With this in mind Talha’s story serves as a reminder that males born into such a harshly conservative environment must also conform to a strict set of expectations. Talha’s individuality and personal identity are systematically worn away only to be replaced by religious zeal, terrorist rhetoric and hatred.
Among the Believers illustrates the complexity of Pakistan’s continuing political unrest and explores its deep roots in long-standing issues such as poverty, gender inequality, lack of education, and a complicated history of American intervention. In terms of addressing the violence of the jihadist movement and the ensuing bloodshed perpetrated by leaders such as Abdul Aziz Ghazi, perhaps the most powerful statement is made shortly after a savage attack on a school when it’s noted that “the smallest coffins are the heaviest.”
Among the Believers is now available on DVD.