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Film Review: Among The Believers

Powerful documentary highlights ideological battles shaping today’s Pakistan

Posted: 12.03.16

The Land of the Pure has become a common subject of negative press around the world, where sadly, reports of suicide attacks and militant groups are prevalent. But how many viewers of this news are actually aware of the underlying issues that have led to these events? This is what makes award-winning Among The Believers such an important documentary, as it provides a dismal, yet enlightening insight into the minds of the key people behind the changing perception of religion in Pakistan, as well as into the lives of the people directly affected by this sea of volatile waves.

We see the extraordinary conjoining crusade of India and Pakistan, with Directors Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi who investigate the roots of terrorism, which led them to leader of Lal Masjid, Abdul Aziz Ghazi, notoriously controversial for his unashamed support for ISIS and the Taliban, as well as his solid belief that Pakistan should be ruled under strict Shariah law.

A contextual background is provided where we are shown a rarely seen glimpse of American President Ronald Reagan, personally hailing the greatness of the mujahideen back in the 80’s, when they were funded by the American government to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Once they were no longer of use to them, the American support came to an end, and thus radicalization spawned and lingered.

Aziz’s profile throughout the film is a relatively balanced depiction, as he is followed along his journey. He is considered a giving and caring persona by the common folk, who provides poor and orphaned children with shelter, food and Islamic teachings. In one scene, he is shown giving charity to an elderly man who has turned to him for refuge, instead of an ignorant government.

Yet, the raw footage speaks for itself. A particularly disturbing scene shows a small child imitating what must be the cleric’s own sermon, fiercely and repeatedly chanting ‘Death to all infidels!’. Witnessing such a terrifyingly sad sight points to a disconcerting truth without any biased reporting – Aziz is taking advantage of poor and vulnerable seminaries to wage his ideological war to gain a radical ‘Islamic’ hegemony. This aggressive doctrine has led to uproar amidst progressive thinking Pakistanis, including Nuclear Physicist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy and other activists, demanding the arrest of Aziz to hinder his widespread incitation of hatred for the West, the State and the obvious radicalisation of young boys, where it is instilled in them, that they should sacrifice their lives for jihad. Ironically, Aziz himself was caught burqa-clad fleeing the ambush of Lal Masjid by General Pervez Musharraf in 2007, in an attempt to seize the masjid.

Tariq, an uneducated village leader of rural Bumi Bekh really struck a chord with me. Too poor to gain an education himself, he built a school on his own modest piece of land to educate the village children. Whilst sitting on his prayer mat, his poignant words of wisdom resonate, explaining that jihad is subjective. Jihad is battling your inner demons. Jihad is building a school. Despite his simple nature, his ideals match those of the Nuclear Physicist, demonstrating the nature of Islam amongst both rural and cosmopolitan Pakistanis. This is further highlighted when people took to the streets in protest and outrage following the violent backlash of angry misguided Lal Masjid seminaries and after the horrific attack on a school in Peshawar, also associated with Lal Masjid and Aziz. Another poor soul whose heartbreaking fate has been determined by the conflicting ideologies of her country is Zarina, who fled the Lal Masjid and went to Tariq’s school instead, until it closed down due to threat of attacks by Lal Masjid radicals. As a result of this series of events, Zarina becomes a child bride at the age of 12, like many other young girls.

What makes Among The Believers such a significant, refreshing and illuminating film, is that you will come away feeling closer to the people of Pakistan and their grievances. You will understand the inner conflict within a country where two very different mindsets are clashing. Despite aspects that are shockingly sad and hold dangerous potential of fueling Islamaphobic views, the film overall actually manages to refrain from that, as the tone throughout remains factual and objective, with every portrayal supported with unbiased footage. Thanks to the fearless reporting of Naqvi and Trivedi, along with fervent activists, the arrest of Aziz was instigated earlier this year.

Although not deliberately or directly, Among The Believers draws attention to governing discrepancies due to a series of failed leaderships. The root of the issue stems from lack of education, where the poor cannot afford to send their children to normal schools, thus opting for Lal Masjid type organisations. If the government advocated education campaigns for the poor, they needn’t surrender their younglings to the likes of Aziz. Without their innocent pawns to implement their one-dimensional ideologies, the perpetrators would no longer be able to misuse Islam. Islam could once again reinstate its peaceful, true identity in the eyes of the world.

Find out more about the film here.
Among The Believers is currently showing at Bertha DocHouse, London. Click here for more info.

Fariha Sabir 

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