TFF2015 | Among the believers

Pakistani cleric Maulana Aziz has perfected the art of creating extremists. Throughout his war-torn, economically ravaged homeland he has opened up a series of madrasas that exclusively teach the memorization of the Quran. The students come from desperately poor families who can’t afford to feed them. Aziz’s Red Mosque network of madrasas’s ffoffers of free food, lodging, and an “education” prove too tempting for parents. Many don’t realize that in actuality they are enrolling their children in a program that is literally training them to be mujahideen, jihadist fighters (scrolling through the Red Mosque Facebook page, Aziz remarks that practically every day one of his students is “martyred”). By the time some parents discover what is happening to their children, they have been so thoroughly brainwashed that they refuse to return home with them. This is the background for Mohammed Naqvi and Hemal Trivedi’s Among the Believers, a chilling documentary that examines Aziz’s Red Mosque network and the roots of Muslim extremism.

Among the Believers traces the last few years of Aziz’s movement, framing them within two flashpoints of violence: the 2007 destruction of Lal Masjid, the Red Mosque headquarters, which resulted in 150+ deaths and the December 2014 Peshawar school massacre. The former demonstrated the full power of Aziz’s followers while the latter united Pakistan in opposition against him and his fellow extremists. This ends the film on an element of hope: Aziz is currently incarcerated, the madrasas are being dismantled, and the Pakistani people are fighting back. But this ending feels too convenient. The seeds Aziz planted are rooted too deep to be removed so quickly.

Consider Talha and Zarina, two twelve year olds featured frequently. Both were enrolled in Red Mosque madrasas. Talha, a boy, embraces his new life and angrily rejects his father when he tries to force him to come home. Aziz being put away won’t quench the fire of hatred now burning in his heart. Zarina, a girl, doesn’t end up much better. Though she escapes the madrasas, she is married off to her full-grown neighbor because of her family’s poverty. She trades one prison for another. This demonstrates the most uncomfortable truth in the film: Aziz may be gone, but the economic conditions that allowed him to gain power remain. Until they are addressed, it’s only a matter of time until the next Aziz arrives.