April 21, 2015 / 5:50 PM / 2 years ago

'Among the Believers' probes ideological rift behind Pakistan violence

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A battle for the minds of Pakistan’s young people is behind the bloody conflict that has claimed hundreds of lives this year alone, according to two film directors whose latest work focuses on the country’s divided education system.

In “Among the Believers,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, directors Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi delve into the ideological rift at the root of the violence.

Trivedi, who is from India, said it was after the 2008 attacks in Mumbai - in which 10 Pakistani men armed with guns and grenades killed 166 people in hotels, hospitals and a railway station - that she decided to make the film.

“I wanted to make sense of my anger and I realized that Pakistan is a deeply divided country (where) there’s a fringe minority that is trying to take over...from the vast majority of Pakistanis,” Trivedi said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“The biggest ideological divide in Pakistan today is in the field of education so I wanted to document that polarity in the education system by following children in madrassas and schools,” she said.

Over a period of six years, the filmmakers gained access to radical cleric Abdul Aziz Ghazi, a supporter of the Taliban and head of the Red Mosque in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, and to his vast network of madrassas, religious seminaries.

Ghazi and his followers preach the waging of jihad, holy war or struggle, to their students, and want Pakistan to adopt a strict version of sharia, Islamic law.

Madrassas provide students with free lodging and food, and teach them the Koran, which makes them attractive to poor Pakistani parents who want their children to get some education but can’t afford to pay for it.

The madrassas are filling a vacuum left by the state which has failed to provide education to millions of Pakistanis, said Trivedi, who is also one of the film’s producers.

But the majority of Pakistanis do not support Ghazi’s extreme version of Islam, the filmmakers said.

In 2007, government forces assaulted the Red Mosque in a crackdown on radical clerics and their students who had been running a vigilante anti-vice campaign using kidnapping and intimidation.

Pakistan’s liberals berated President Pervez Musharraf for not clamping down sooner on the religious students.

In December many Pakistanis were angered when Ghazi did not unequivocally condemn a militant attack on a school in Peshawar in which more than 130 students were killed, triggering nationwide outrage.

“What I wanted to showcase is not just people like Aziz (Ghazi) but the other Muslims, the other Pakistanis who are countering that narrative,” Naqvi said.

That counter-narrative is embodied in the film by figures like nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, a staunch opponent of religious extremism and of the Red Mosque, and village leader Tariq, who defies threats and attacks to keep open the school he built for his community.

“You can’t change people like Aziz ... but you can defuse them and one option to do that is to provide schools that actually function and empower the next generation of kids,” said Naqvi.

Reporting by Maria Caspani; Editing by Tim Pearce

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