Rarely are the origins of extremism obvious to those it affects throughout the world. For Americans, religious extremism is hardly a part of daily life. In Pakistan, however, the numerous madrassas around the country make for a tense and frightening way of life, and with the growing threats of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram extending throughout the region, the setting of the so-called schools make for powerful documentary.
For “Among the Believers,” directors Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi were granted unprecedented access to Maulana Aziz, a Muslim leader who runs The Red Mosque, an organization that trains children to devote their lives to holy war. Thousands of children out of his schools have pledged their allegiance to ISIS. Aziz is not an intimidating presence physically, but his unwavering devotion and fear-provoking rhetoric give him an intimidating air.
The film begins with an alarming scene: a young boy calmly recites a chant that sounds like a prayer. But his tone abruptly shifts, his cadence growing more and more violent as he violently gesticulates. This intense, childhood aggression is juxtaposed by the colorful posters of the alphabet and vegetables behind him, emphasizing not only the relatively ridiculous claim that the madrassa is only a school, but also the fact that the main participants are children. It’s a chilling opener to a film that follows suit.
Thankfully, the battle isn’t one-sided. Trivedi and Naqvi also include the perspective of education reformer Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who’s been Aziz’s long-time opponent, a young girl named Zarina, who left a madrassa to attend a regular school, and that school’s administrator, Tariq. All of these characters add a realistic counter to Aziz’s fear mongering. Though they fear for their lives, and battle religious extremism every day, their outlooks, firmly planted in reality, make Aziz’s worldview sound all the more insane.
In a way, “Among the Believers” recalls Alex Gibney’s recent Scientology takedown “Going Clear,” in that it exposes the indoctrination of the young by way of restrictive religious dogma. “Allah wants us to enjoy this world,” says Aziz in the film. But how much of the world can you enjoy if you simply read the Quran from before dawn until bed at 9pm? But while Gibney wasn’t able to make it inside the walls of Scientology, Trivedi and Naqvi managed to break those barriers when it came to The Red Mosque and Aziz himself.
The access awarded to Trivedi and Naqvi is no small feat, particularly due to the intimate and revealing footage of Aziz at work. The filmmakers weave together historical footage, intimate interviews and live events in such a fluid way that the film maintains its urgency, despite many of the events being years old. If anything, the only real setback is the recurring focuses on Pakistan with no reference to similar events taking place beyond its borders. Even so, by limiting the setting, the directors manage to amplify on one nation’s issues rather than trying to create an all-encompassing overview. With ideological clashes that span countries, “Among the Believers” offers an intricate and frightening look into the microcosm of our current world’s biggest international issue. Additionally, Trivedi and Naqvi ability to end on a hopeful note saves the movie from ending on a downbeat.