New Film, <em>Among the Believers</em>, Looks Inside Pakistan’s Madrassas

The documentary follows the extremist leader of a religious school and two young students navigating the country’s education crisis.

“I worry about him,” Talha’s father says. “We just sent him to study, we didn’t think about it too much.”

Talha, a 12-year-old boy, is a seminary student profiled in the new documentary Among the Believers, which examines one of Pakistan’s most infamous mosques and religious schools, the Lal Masjid in Islamabad. Like many other students at the school, Talha is the child of a poor family from Kashmir. His father sent him to Islamabad in the hopes of providing him with room, board and an education, only to later find him under the sway of religious extremists. “We didn’t know what kind of things they do and teach to kids there,” his father says.

Over the course of the film, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and was directed by Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi, Talha slowly transforms from an earnest young boy, who breaks into an uncontrollable grin at the mention of his favorite Pakistani cricket player, into a stern and somber fundamentalist.

When his distraught father visits the school to convince him to come back home, Talha refuses.

Talha’s story is symptomatic of a broader phenomenon in Pakistan: a central government without the means or motivation to provide infrastructure and economic opportunity for the great mass of its poor citizenry. In the absence of public institutions, religious schools, some with an extremist bent, have stepped in to take over the instruction of many children like Talha. Families are often forced into a Hobson’s choice between under-funded, often barely functioning government schools, and religious schools that offer free room and board. Private schools, patronized by those of better means, are unattainable to families like Talha’s.

A 2014 study by the International Crisis Group documented the abysmal circumstances facing the young and poor in Pakistan, where an estimated nine million children do not receive primary or secondary education. Many of these children are refugees from conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir, who have been left to fend for themselves in major urban centers such as Karachi and Peshawar. As the report documents, the gap left by the state has been filled by “poorly regulated madrasas and religious schools.” 

Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi, the Lal Masjid leader and extremist preacher profiled in Among the Believers, says as much, restating a reality that has become axiomatic among Pakistanis. “The military rulers have failed to solve the major problems of the country. The republican leaders have failed. When everyone has failed, it creates a vacuum. Someone has to fill it.”

Along with religious institutions like Lal Masjid, grassroots social services organizations and informal networks of patronage also function as a surrogate welfare state to the country’s most needy. Pakistan’s most famous non-governmental charity organization, the Edhi Foundation, operates not only boarding schools, but also a huge fleet of ambulances and hospitals funded entirely by private donations.

But for a country of 180 million people, such services are still inadequate, and many children end up panhandling on the streets or working in atrocious conditions in the country’s makeshift brick kilns and factories. For girls, families resort to marriage in the absence of other opportunities. In the film, 12-year-old Zarina is married off to a local boy by her reluctant parents after her village school is shuttered. For families faced with such choices, sending a child to a distant madrassa can seem like the most benign option, albeit one they seldom understand the full implications of.

Among the Believers portrays Pakistan as a country in the throes of a clash between atavistic religious forces on one hand, and progressive, secular reformists on the other. The extremist figure of Abdul Aziz Ghazi is contrasted with that of Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist and spokesperson for the country’s liberal intelligentsia. But while this ideological divide is relevant, it is perhaps too simplistic to understand the country’s predicament.

Although the Lal Masjid is an infamously malign presence in the country’s body politic, not all Pakistani madrassas are created equal. In the Karachi neighborhood where my extended family lives, a local school attached to a mosque offers religious instruction, as well as tutoring in science, mathematics and other subjects. Such schools, technically religious in nature, are not unique, and offer one of the few pathways toward a better future available to the overwhelming majority of Pakistan’s urban poor. While poorly regulated institutions are not ideal, they still offer some semblance of upward mobility through education in the absence of the state.

Endemic corruption and an overbearing, largely unaccountable military establishment have, on the other hand, siphoned away funds which could otherwise be used to build sustainable schools with standardized curriculums throughout Pakistan. Until this problem is addressed, huge numbers of children will still be forced into early adulthood by work and marriage, and institutions like Lal Masjid will still be able to find a steady supply of children to indoctrinate into their radical worldview.

In the closing scenes of Among the Believers, Tariq, the head of the village of Bunni Behk, reopens the school Zarina attended, which Tariq had founded for the local children, and which had been under threat by local militants associated with Lal Masjid. In a classroom full of young boys and girls learning to use their computers, he says, beaming, “If the next generation gets to learn, it means we will all learn.”

Photo Muhammed Muheisen/AP

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