Among the Believers is a 2015 documentary illustrating the ideological divide between Pakistani fundamentalists and the secular segments of society. While a decent documentary, I have my usual quibbles with pacing and stylistic measures. There is a lot of time jumping which I found irritating and the pacing is ‘off.’ Ultimately we are shown how the red mosque siege led to the horrific peshawar school attack, but by this point in the docu it is more of a footnote and not the meat of the film.
Remarkably we are shown extensive inside footage of life inside a red mosque madrasa. Children are woken an hour before dawn and then recite/ memorize the koran until night. That’s right: they spend full days doing nothing but reciting and memorizing the koran (which they don’t understand in arabic), with occasional food breaks; one former student claims they are fed just once a day. Indeed many of the young students look guant and undernourished, with sunken eyes and washed out complexion. It is a brutal existence but only slightly less brutal than what awaits on the outside. For the boys, harsh manual labor; for the girls, way too early marriage.
One of the more disturbing scenes is a brief interview with a red mosque pupil. With unfeigned confusion he asks: why is he considered a ‘terrorist?’ After all, he explains, he is a mujihadeen who kills infidels in the name of allah. He truly saw no connection.
As disturbing as the documentary was, something about it bothered me beyond the political fray. I couldn’t put my finger on it, until it dawned on me a few days later: politics, religion, foreign policy aside, what is taking place in these madrasas is child abuse. Forcing young children to do nothing for 10+ hours but memorize a single book (any book!) is abusive. There is no playing, no cerebral investigation, no nurturing. These children are being robbed of their childhoods, with no chance to be a kid.
The children, especially the younger children, are shown rocking back and forth as they recite koran. While I know rocking back and forth can be part of prayer- orthodox men rock back and forth while davening– this to me looked like a stress reaction. It reminded me of footage I’ve seen from eastern european orphanages where children rock endlessly back and forth in an effort to soothe themselves. And that’s basically what these madrasas are, ‘orphanages’ for the very poor whose parents- facing few options – surrender them.
Why the treatment of these children in madrasas isn’t considered a human rights issue on par with child labor is beyond me, and I wish it had been better addressed by the docu. The docu also overlooks the glaring class issues at play: secularists in Pakistan tend to be upper class and well off, while extremists tend to emerge from dire poverty. And given high rates of cousin marriage in Pakistan, this creates a de facto caste system that further cements the divide.
Among the Believers is available on netflix as of this posting.