Among The Believers (2016) – Review

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Among the believers 2016 documentaryA little boy, no older than 10, passionately recites a passage of the Qur’an he has learned at the Red Mosque, his face contorting with fervor and what looks like anger.

The Red Mosque network in Pakistan, a group that supports ISIS and has links with the Taliban, is teaching radical Islam to a generation of children. It teaches that anyone who does not adhere to pure Sharia law is an infidel, and is not deserving of life. Jihad, in its most violent form, is encouraged, and martyrs are glorified: ‘Allah willing, they [the students]will bring a revolution to the whole world’ says the Red Mosque’s leader, Abdul Aziz.

This disturbing documentary delves into the Red Mosque’s radical world, exploring the ways in which children, many of whom enter the organisation very young, come to embrace an extreme form of Islam and the concept of martyrdom.

In making ‘Among the Believers’, the filmmakers were granted an exceptional level of access to Aziz, who is extensively interviewed throughout the film. They do not shirk from this opportunity, and Aziz is asked provocative questions – including about his failure to condemn the Army Public School massacre, by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in Peshawar in December 2014. The filmmakers also interview several people who speak out against the organisation, including a former student who escaped a Red Mosque madrasa.

The militancy, the stringent rules young children are forced to live by and the total submission to Sharia law that Aziz expects of his students are counterbalanced by footage of large anti-radical demonstrations, and the repulsion of many ordinary Pakistanis towards extremism. In a world that increasingly associates Islam with radicalism, we are reminded that the majority of Muslims are moderate people who believe that Islam should be tolerant and peaceful, and this gives the film an undercurrent of hope.

Among the believers 2016 documentary behind the scenesThe close up shots used throughout ‘Among the Believers’ make the film feel particularly intimate and genuine. This access, though, and the obvious prevalence and influence of the organisation throughout Pakistan, creates a sense of unease for the viewer – and, no doubt, for those Pakistanis who oppose Aziz.

The camera also reveals certain contradictions that are not discussed, per se: a member asserts that the Red Mosque’s branches do not contain weapons, but we see armed guards at the doors; Aziz states that he disapproves of ‘violent solutions’, but in the next breath explains the justice of ‘an eye for an eye’. One young student even confesses that he does not know the meanings of the Qur’an passages that he is learning to recite by heart.

A particularly memorable and tense moment comes with a debate between Aziz and Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, an academic and anti-Red Mosque campaigner, which was televised in Pakistan. What is especially shocking about this scene is to see Aziz sitting in a TV studio, at full liberty, unashamedly expressing his extreme and violent opinions.

The filmmakers also take us out of Islamabad to speak to people in a very poor, rural community. Here, we begin to understand how a powerful and resourceful movement, even one with extreme beliefs, can grow at a grassroots level, and the importance of basic education in the struggle against extremism.

We meet a schoolmaster who talks about his fear of Red Mosque guards, who patrol a Red Mosque madrasa in his village. He also describes his ongoing struggle to persuade local families, many of whom are very poor, to send their children to school, instead of a madrasa. It becomes clear that many people across Pakistan do not know the details of the Red Mosque’s education programme, and see it primarily as a resource which helps support impoverished families; honest but poor parents are turning to a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the results are brutal and divisive.

It is deeply unnerving that the Red Mosque network and its leaders remain active and in the public eye across Pakistan – despite the fact that an arrest warrant was issued for Aziz in 2014. Some people believe the government’s failure to run a sustained attack against the organisation is due to fear – but this sends a bleak message to ordinary people and campaigners who want to see an end to religiously motivated violence.

‘Among the Believers’ offers an unusually intimate window into the world of radical Islam. The film offers both national and personal perspectives and we are left feeling unsettled. For Aziz, democracy has failed Pakistan and left a vacuum that must be filled. The film depicts an increasingly polarised society, in which the rational coexists alongside the extreme. Most of all, we witness the dangers, in such a society, of being under-informed and the ways in which extremist organisations can exploit poverty and cultivate dependence – with dangerous consequences that go beyond one country.

Among the Believers is on limited release in UK cinemas from Friday 11 March. More info here.

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