AMONG THE BELIEVERS – An inside look into the Pakistani Red Mosque

“Progressive thought is dying.”

Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz has no doubts, the main character of AMONG THE BELIEVERS, the powerful documentary by Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi, shot in the most infamous Pakistani school of Quran, Madrasas Laal Masjid, the Red Mosque of Islamabad.

It should be said that the two acclaimed and award-winning filmmakers have risked their lives to complete this work.

Threatened several times by the Taliban with death, Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi did not only just take an inside look into the life of the Red Mosque, they were able to reach a point where nobody had succeeded before – they actually got Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz to play himself.

Abdul Aziz is not an ordinary preacher. In 2007, the year when AMONG THE BELIEVERS began filming, Abdul Aziz was the religious leader of Laal Masjid, the center of all Pakistani madrasses. At that time, Maulana Aziz could boast of having close relations with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, and Ayman al-Zawahiri,number two of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.

Maulana Azizil was and is a convinced supporter of IS, the Taliban and the Sharia, the orthodox Islamic law. Then, as now, he has only one goal – to turn Pakistan into an Islamic State. Even by force if necessary, using the highly explosive force of the Mujahideen army (the Jihad fighters) trained by the Ulama (the Islamic clergy) in the many madrasses scattered throughout the country.

Young teenagers ready to immolate themselves in the name of Allah, of an Islamic society and the struggle against the great American Satan. To meet this goal, Pakistan’s poorest classes offer an unlimited pool of soldiers.

AMONG THE BELIEVERS is an extraordinary historical testimony, the dramatic sequel that has given rise to the most tragic events in modern Pakistani history. Maulana Azizil, presently under house arrest, is the instigator of the turning point, starting with the clashes at the Red Mosque in 2007 and ending his tragic epilogue with the Peshawar massacres in 2014.In those years, after September 11, the Red Mosque was accused of being the head and heart of Islamic terrorism, the parent school of a network made up of about 10,000 Islamic madrasses.

Under Maulana Azizil’s “spiritual” guidance 5,000 students lived and studied there. They studied the Koran by heart, chanting from morning to evening. Very few breaks, zero fun. A great number of these boys came from Kashmir and the province of Khyber Pakhtunwa, in the northwest of the country.

AMONG THE BELIEVERS is a disturbing film right from the very first scene set in the Red Mosque.

What will you do when you grow up?” Maulana Aziz asks a student.

“Mujahideen” he answers. “Do you remember the sermons we taught you?”

“We will fight you in Allah’s name […] You cannot conquer us, if you dare, we’ll destroy you in Allah’s name.”

The child has passed the test, the master bursting with pride.

“Once we train their minds, they’ll never change until they die” (Maulana Azizil)

Chillingly. Thousands of innocent children, like laboratory mice lobotomized by the wearing continual litany of the Qur’an verses, forced to learn it by heart till the point of exhaustion.

“Regular schools teach that education leads to a better life, with a car, a home. A wife, kids. We teach that the purpose of life is to spread the message of Allah through proselytizing or jihad. Not only in Pakistan, but all over the world […] our students will bring revolution to the world if Allah wants […]” (Maulana Azizil)

The madrasses have not always been schools for would-be jihadists. About a century ago, the madrasses educated, through the study of Islamic law and theology, imperial officials and religious scholars. Basically, the future Muslim elite.

In the 1980s, they turned into training camps for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, financed by Saudi Arabia (in those years introducing Wahhabism to the country) and the United States.

Maulana Azizil saw his father die before his very eyes, killed by an assassin, inside the mosque. “The Americans wanted him dead” Azizil says. “They gave us missiles for the jihad, to fight the Russians, they called us heroes and then left us to fend for ourselves.”

After the war against the Soviets, many of these jihadists kept on fighting in other campaigns in Kashmir, mostly against India, ending up joining al Qaeda. It wasn’t until after the terrorist attacks of September 11 that the madrasses became a problem for Pakistan and much of the Western world.

Although it was only with the bloody events at the Red Mosque the Pakistani government decide to crackdown. Up until then more than twenty-five Koranic schools had been present in the country, thousands of them funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Real incubators of Islamic radicalism.

Progressive thinking may be dead in Pakistan, but poverty certainly isn’t. It is here that the madrasses find their strength, particularly among the large pockets of poverty to be found all over the country. The overwhelming majority of the population, that is 180 million people, cannot afford private schools for their children. 9 million children do not have access to primary or secondary education, many of them are Afghan or Kashmiri refugees. Thousands of them end up on the streets begging or working in atrocious conditions in many brick factories. For many families, the madrasses represent the only source of education and a life for their kids.

Thala is one of these. Like many others of his age, Thala comes from Kashmir, from a poor family, seeing in the Red Mosque the only chance for his son to have a better future.

“I did not know what kind of teaching my son had been given in this madrass […]. Our family is moderate, we are simply Muslims” said his father after that dramatic day on July 3, 2007, when Maulana Azizil triggers his Holy War because “the time for peace is over”.

Baton-wielding men, thousands of Islamic students took to the streets, attacked barbers’ shops, DVD sellers, college students. Blasphemous drug dealers, they called them. It is the violent response to Pervez Musharraf’s announcement to close the Red Mosque.

Pakistan had been the main sponsor of the Taliban until September 11, then fearing the wrath of America, did an about-turn, firmly siding with the US in the war on terror.

“We are under siege. Thousands of young people are coming from all over the world”,  “to become martyrs in the cause of Allah. Be on your guard, we will reduce your government to rubble.” (Maulana Aziz)

“We have no weapons here except the Koran” said the religious leader. However, the mosque actually hid a large amount of money and illegal weapons and, according to government sources, also foreign fighters arrived from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan to train the young students.

In the clashes with the armed forces who had laid siege to the Red Mosque for days, 94 people were killed, including Maulana Aziz’s son. A martyr of Allah, the preacher called him. He, on the contrary, turned out to be all too human, found trying to escape from the mosque disguised as a woman. In burqa, of course. Since then he has been mocked as Mullah Burqa. “They called us terrorists, we are mujahideen.”

Maulana Aziz remained in prison for two years, charged with instigating the events of July 2007. Presently he is under house arrest. Meanwhile, there are those who tried to resist. Tariq, a man in the village of Bunni Behkesta, built a secular school on his land. A salvation for many children, even for Zarina, a girl who had fled from the Red Mosque.

“They taught us the Koran by heart .. I could not leave the mosque without wearing the burqa, I had to forget about my parents […] they gave us one slice of bread a day, I fled, they would never have let me go, they do not want peace, they just want to kill. They are not Muslims, they are infidels.”

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear scientist and activist, spokesman for the Pakistani Liberal Intelligence, who took over the leadership of the opposition and resistance movement as the fundamentalist, militarist, bloody rage spread.

Between 2007 and 2014, there were more than 3,000 terrorist attacks in Pakistan, more than 50,000 deaths, 1,200 schools destroyed by the Taliban, including Zarina’s school, and who is now forced to get married. Too weak, despite being strong, to not follow the path of many young girls from the poorest families. Betrothed at only 12 years of age, despite her father’s benevolence, who would have even liked her to study.

Even for Thala, his destiny is marked because “once we have formed their minds they will not change them for the rest of their lives.” Thala does not want to go home with his father. He wants to continue studying and become a mujahideen. The story of Thala, like that of Zarina, is symbolic of a widespread phenomenon in Pakistan. Poverty and lack of education, ground on which Islamic extremism takes root.

In an elementary school in the turbulent city of Peshwar, 141 people are murdered, 132 are children. A ruthless Taliban retribution against the government’s repression of Islamic militants that began on July 3, 2007 at Lal Masjid in Islamabad and continuously developed over seven years.

December 2014 – the bloody massacre in Peshwar

“The smallest coffins are the heaviest” –  we see written on the placards of the vigils organized in many cities around the world – London, Lahore, Toronto, Washington. They all call for a stop to the shedding of children’s blood. A national tragedy felt all over the world. The levels of indignation as always shoot sky high when children are the victims.

Shortly after, Maulana Aziz makes a TV appearance refusing to condemn the authors of the terrible attack – the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban active in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

An ideological conflict is reshaping modern Pakistan between modernity and restoring Islam. Despite international pressures, Pakistan remains the main financier of the Afghan Taliban.

After the Peshawar massacre, the government of Pervez Musharraf adopted a plan for the de-radicalization of Pakistani society requiring the madrasses to register and make known their funding sources. However, up to now, no government has been able to ensure respect for this obligation.

In recent years, the government has closed nearly 2,000 madrasses being suspected of ties with radical Islamic militancy. At present, there are nearly 2 million students enrolled in the Islamic schools in Pakistan. The National Action Plan, the package of measures adopted by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is too small, too late and too tied to the country’s religious elites.

However, there are those who resist, those who fight for the younger generations, who try to grab Pakistan by the hand and stop it from falling into the well of indoctrination and radicalization.

Tariq in the final scene of AMONG THE BELIEVERS reopens the school attacked by the Taliban linked to the organized network of the Red Mosque.

“If the next generation studies, all of us will learn.”

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