Among the Believers: Ideological Battles Shaping Pakistan
On Friday 11 March 2016, the Frontline Club held a screening of Among the Believers, a documentary directed by Hemil Trevedi and Mohammed Naqvi. The screening was followed by a Q&A with Naqvi and producer Joseph Goodman Levitt.
Set in Pakistan, the documentary follows enigmatic cleric Maulana Aziz, also known as Abdul Aziz Ghazi, who is waging jihad against the Pakistani state and based at the controversial Red Mosque in Islamabad. Alongside Aziz, the film follows two 12-year-old students who have attended the madrassas – Islamic seminaries that teach Sharia law as the only law and at which students learn to recite the Quran – run by the Red Mosque network. Zarina escapes from her local madrassa to join a regular school; while Talha disengages from his moderate Muslim family and decides to become a jihadi preacher whilst studying at a madrassa.
The documentary explores the proliferation of Islamic fundamentalism in the context of a state that is trying to combat the indoctrination of children at madrassas.
The directors began the discussion by explaining how they had gained access to Aziz. Naqvi described how initially the film was about the two young teens, but as the story developed it became obvious that the team “needed to dig much more deeper than just following the other characters… We needed an anchor point, to follow someone who actually used a lot of these other characters, perpetuating their own rhetoric. And for us that happened to be Maulana Aziz,” said Naqvi.
Naqvi subsequently followed Aziz on and off for two years, but admitted the real access did not come until 2013. “I definitely came with my own baggage and my own prejudices,” said Naqvi. He was confronted by a man “affiliated with an institution that perpetuated militancy and intolerance in Pakistan, so I hated him definitely,” said Naqvi.
However, in 2013 “there was a major shift” in how Naqvi worked with Aziz.
Naqvi described how he had come to meet Aziz “on a common ground… on questions of my own faith and own spirituality.”
Goodman Levitt attributed much of the film’s success to the relationship Naqvi was able to build with Aziz, and commented that a combination of “good fortune and great work” had led to the film being made.
— Maha Khan Phillips (@MahaKhanPhillip) March 12, 2016
Naqvi described how gaining access to and working with Zarina was a “real privilege” for the team. Despite pressure from her community not to become involved with the film, Zarina’s parents “really supported their daughter in wanting to bring this story forwards.” Zarina “really wanted to share her story, she was really open to it,” said Naqvi.
In addition to Aziz, Talha and Zarina, the film follows Dr Prevez Hoodbhoy, a doctor of nuclear physics and activist protesting the activities of the Red Mosque. Hoodbhoy was Aziz’s foil throughout the documentary and Naqvi described him as a useful ally of the production from the outset.
Much of the discussion focused on the future of Pakistan, and what changes will develop in the near future.
Among the Believers also explores the National Action Plan, instigated by the Pakistani government to push curriculum reform in the madrassas and to combat the culture of militancy. “The fact that they came up with the National Action Plan… The fact that there are some small disparate groups coming out on the streets and condemning this culture of intolerance, that’s something. All we can hope is that it grows from there,” said Naqvi.
The response to the movie from within Pakistan was mixed. Some of Naqvi’s biggest and most loyal supporters are from Pakistan. However, some reacted “very viscerally… [they] said you’re just perpetuating a very singular stereotype and orientalist spectacle for western media.”
Naqvi concluded: “I’m still affecting change and if I can be part of the dialogue in change, that’s great.”