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'Among the Believers' was created from an 'indigenous perspective.'

'Among the Believers'

A documentary about radical Islam in Pakistan forces its makers to arrive at a deeper understanding

By Zainab Salbi on September 29, 2016

Among the Believers is a powerful new documentary that sheds light on Pakistan’s global image problem.  The story of its making begins with raw emotion — the hatred some Indians felt toward Pakistan after November 26, 2008—“26/11.” The coordinated shooting and bombing attacks carried out in Mumbai by 10 members of a Pakistan-based terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba, left 164 victims dead and more than 300 wounded at the landmark Taj Mahal hotel and in or near other strategically chosen locations in the city — a hospital, a college, a cinema, a historic Jewish enclave.

Hemal Trivedi, the co-producer, director and editor of the film, certainly felt the rage.

“I experienced a lot of hate and anger towards Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack that killed a dear friend.  Then I started questioning my anger, as I did not know anything about Pakistan,” says Trivedi.  “The pain of losing my friend was so visceral that it triggered my curiosity to understand Pakistan a bit more than what the Indian media was providing.”

Trivedi would discover that Pakistan was at war with itself.  “The real battle is fought there.  We are so oblivious of what is happening in Pakistan that we are just reacting to the simple impulse of hatred.  Once I realized that, my anger tuned into empathy.”

She teamed up with co-director, Pakistani film-maker Mohammed Naqvi, to explore the tension between opposing figures in Pakistan’s ideological landscape. Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi is a fundamentalists leader of the Red Mosque known for crimes against religious minorities, promotion of extremist ideology, and support of ISIS and the Taliban. Pervez Hoodbhoy is a nuclear physicist, educational activist, and moderate Pakistani Muslim who is combating fundamentalist ideologies.  Covering the spectrum between these two men are Pakistanis, including  young students and schoolteachers, who are responding in their own ways, with their own meager means, to remedy a situation that is tearing their society apart.

“The war on terror is not about West versus Islam or West versus East.  It is a spiritual dialogue about what is happening within Pakistan,” Naqvi says.   “I remember a Pakistan that my parents grew up in which was a lot more open minded, liberal and secular.  I grew up, however, in the ’80s and ’90s.  The Pakistan I knew was more politically intolerant and more dangerous.  I even had a family member who was gunned down because he was a Shia.”

Though he knew that the story of what is happening within Pakistan needed to be told, he was conflicted about Trivedi’s interest in collaborating with him.  “I fought within myself at first,” he says. “I want to tell the stories of my part of the world but there is a sense of orientalist specialism when it comes down to telling stories about Pakistan.”  His view is shared by many Pakistanis who feel that foreign media coverage highlights extremists and ignores the moderate voices of the vast majority.  But given that Trivedi wanted to do the story from an “indigenous perspective, and not to brush all Pakistanis as one,” Naqvi agreed to the partnership.

‘Among the Believers’ filmmakers Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Naqvi. (Facebook)

The movie opens with Abdul Aziz, the leader of the Red Mosque where thousands of students are taught fundamentalist values. Many Red Mosque graduates have been accused of terrorist attacks, and the Mosque itself at one point was under attack by the Pakistani government.  It took Naqvi years to cultivate trust with Abdul Aziz, who eventually gave him full access to film him and all of the teaching conducted inside the Red Mosque. Naqvi had to confront his own bias towards Abdul Aziz in order to sustain objectivity.  “I could see some of things he did as heinous.  On the other hand, he is fulfilling a socioeconomic need that the state should do, such as education, or helping the poor.  His role is grounded in politics — in power.”

Fascinating though the Red Mosque scenes are, the filmmakers wanted to show another Pakistan — one equally powerful, vocal, and passionate about preserving a life grounded in faith. This other Islam is practiced as a moderate, loving, progressive, and respectful religion.  Dr. Hoodbhoy represents this Pakistan. The gulf between him and the extremists is so profound that it almost leaves the viewer wondering if there is any hope for reconciliation.

Naqvi has a different emphasis. “I don’t think they can see eye to eye with each other ever.  It is impossible to change either of their views.  I think the world should not focus on changing his ideology but rather take away Abdul Aziz’s power.”

The film is not really about a dichotomy of the two men. “We have other characters in the film that fall in the range in between.  There is the village chief who donated his own land to the village school.  He uses grassroots solutions to combat militants,” Naqvi explains. Also featured is  Zarina, a young girl whose parents send her to the school at the Red Mosque. When  she escapes from it, her parents support her decision.  Parents are often unaware of the  fundamentalist teaching — they send their children for the free education.

“This is about us Muslims reclaiming our own faith from groups like ISIS or extremists,” says Naqvi.   “Many Muslims are afraid to speak out because geopolitics demonizes them.”

Among the Believers is now on tour in America. Some of the filmmakers’ colleagues were  murdered by Red Mosque followers, which slowed down the release process.  Mohammed had to take his family out of Pakistan for their safety, and needed to find his way back to Abdul Aziz to show him the movie and prove to the fundamentalist that the film kept his words intact. The film is banned in Pakistan. Trivedi was able to show it in India where the idea for the film was first conceived.  “It was sold out within four hours from the announcement,” she says.  After the showing, “Indian audiences came to me crying … one girl saying she is ashamed she has been so hateful towards Pakistan.  She had no idea that Pakistanis are being the biggest victims of that violence.”

Making this film involved sacrifices by all those who participated.  They received death threats, their friends were murdered, and the crew were left fearing for their lives and for their families’ safety. What they produced is a stirring message that will ask viewers to  progress beyond fear, hatred, and knee-jerk assumptions about Pakistan and Islam.

For more information on the film and its screening, visit

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit


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