Bombay Showcase

Indoctrinating the future

Among the Believers by Hemal Trivedi and Mohammad Ali Naqvi portrays teaching in a Pakistani madrasa and the ideological battle that is dividing education in the country  

An Indian who has lost a friend to a terror attack and a Pakistani who has observed first-hand the indoctrination that leads to such attacks, makes for an unlikely directorial duo. But, when Hemal Trivedi and Mohammad Ali Naqvi came together to make a documentary on the indoctrination camps run in Pakistan, they were united by a common purpose: to expose the vacuum in Pakistan’s education system that allows such camps to flourish. In an e-mail conversation with The Hindu, about their documentary, Among the Believers, Trivedi and Naqvi explained the process that went into the making of the documentary and the prejudices and the dangers they successfully navigated.

Your profile mentions that you lost a friend in the Mumbai terror attacks. How did you overcome the anger and channelise it in a creative direction? How did the transformation to someone who viewed Pakistanis as ‘victims of terror’ happen?

Hemal Trivedi: I was born and raised in a chawl in Dahisar, Mumbai, in a conservative Brahmin family. Several years after moving to the US to become a filmmaker, I lost a friend of mine in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. After this tragedy, my heart was full of anger and hate for the perpetrators of the crime, who were found to be Pakistanis. To make sense of my feelings, I started digging deeper into the root causes of these attacks.

Over a period of time, I realised that ordinary Pakistanis are themselves the victims of this violence rather than the ones actually perpetrating it. Their way of life is under attack by religious extremists who are forcing their ideology on the country’s vast, peaceful majority. The same people who carried out the Mumbai terror attacks are attacking ordinary Pakistanis on an almost daily basis.

There is an ideological conflict that is reshaping modern Pakistan and causing it to implode. And this ideological conflict is most important battleground is the field of education. Young minds are instilled with the most extremist brand of Islam in many of the country’s madrasas (religious schools) and are used as pawns by certain militant groups for their own political agendas.

Upon this realisation, my anger and hate slowly turned into empathy and I decided to make a film on the ideological shaping of modern-day Pakistan. I travelled to Pakistan in 2009 and filmed the two children (Zarina and Talha who are victims of indoctrination in the madrasas), the village chief and Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy. When I filmed with Talha in his madrasa, I disguised myself as a Muslim and I told them that my name was Hena Khan and I was from Dubai.

How differently do you see Pakistan now, compared to when the 26/11 attacks happened?

HT: I think Pakistan had become even more dangerous today. The ideological conflict in Pakistan has intensified and Pakistanis themselves are being attacked. I personally think things will get worse before they get better. Also, no change can come to Pakistan unless the Pakistanis make it happen. Outside interference has only made matters worse. However, this year, there has been a decrease in terrorist attacks and civilian casualties. This may be the outcome of Pakistani government, especially the army, taking the terrorists head-on after the Peshawar attacks in 2014.

Did you ever fear, while filming in Pakistan, that you might be tracked and caught by the intelligence there? Tell us about your encounters with authorities and how you got permission?

HT: As an Indian, I was not afraid of being on the streets of Pakistan. The country looked like a Muslim neighbourhood in India. I really saw no difference in the two countries. I was only afraid of entering the madrasa, as would, I’m sure, a Pakistani. I cannot speak about if I was tracked by the intelligence authorities. Personally, I had no difficulties with the authorities.

As a child growing up in Pakistan, what were the forces that influenced you? Did you also come into contact with preachers like Abdul Aziz Ghazi?

Mohammad Ali Naqvi: Like many of the children in our film, reading the Quran was compulsory for me while growing up in a religiously conservative Pakistan of the eighties and nineties. And like them, I could read the script and speak the words, but had absolutely no idea what I was reading. What I knew of Islam was filtered through maulanas like Aziz, and I found their teachings limited and shallow.

Ultimately, as a reactionary stance to the ideological force-feeding, I compartmentalised my religious upbringing. It wasn’t until I moved to New York right after college and personally witnessed the 9/11 attacks that was I forced to face my own religious narrative. It was after that point that I started down a path of rediscovering my own spirituality and delving deeper into my own investigation of faith. Ultimately, this journey manifested itself in my art and Among the Believers is a continuation of that process.

What conditions encourage the likes of Abdul Aziz Ghazi to flourish, at a time when Pakistan is fighting its own war against terrorism? Could it be a failure of the education system?

MN: Historically, the Red Mosque played a role in indoctrinating a generation of jihadi fighters to go and fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets during the Afghan-Soviet war. The US was allied with Pakistan in supporting these madrasas. The Americans spent millions to produce anti-Soviet textbooks for schoolchildren, encouraging a jihadist outlook.

After the Soviets were defeated and the US left the region, Pakistan continued to back the Taliban and mujahideen groups to gain strategic depth in Afghanistan and counter India. It is this geopolitical strategy that has backfired on us in the long run and allowed figures like Aziz to gain prominence.

The other reason Aziz and his ilk have a growing sphere of influence is because of the failures of the state. The government has failed to provide basic civil-social mechanisms and many in our country continue to live in poverty. When all our successive governments fail to provide the basic needs of people, many in Pakistan start to look at alternatives. And as Aziz says, “Military governments have failed, Civilian governments have failed; there is a leadership vacuum and someone has to fill it.” For many in Pakistan, Aziz is filling that vacuum by providing free education, boarding and food to children from very poor families.

What was your perception of India as a child? Also, can you tell us about how you developed a perspective that the vision of people like Ghazi was not right for Pakistan?

MN: Both my parents were born in India. My father was an infant when he left Meerut with his family in 1948. My mother actually grew up in Lucknow and didn’t make her way to Pakistan till the 1960s. I still have family in India, so I didn’t grow up with any notion of India being an enemy. (Except of course in cricket!)

My parents experienced a very different Pakistan to the one I grew up in during the eighties and nineties. Their Pakistan was more tolerant and open, my Pakistan had sectarian killings and a slow but sustained spread of fanaticism. So I could tell pretty early on that this ideological shift in Pakistan was devouring it.

Being from a liberal Muslim family, I was taught to look at zealotry and preachers of any faith with extreme suspicion. My family was religious and spiritual, but on their own terms. They encouraged me to approach my own faith critically and to question it. This is in complete opposition to the fascistic dogma Aziz espouses.

What are the dilemmas and difficulties a Pakistani liberal faces?

MN: We constitute a small group, at least for now. Also, we lack organisation or any leadership. Essentially, our civil society operates in factions, or disjointedly. There have been instances where we have all come together and unified for a specific cause but then it’s always a temporary run and that momentum fizzles out. The biggest dilemma we face, however, is security. The moment you make statements against militant groups, you are playing with fire. Various militant groups have knee-jerk reactions to what is said in the press and they target liberal activists. Sabeen Mahmud, a brave human rights activist and a friend, was killed earlier this year allegedly for speaking out against the Red Mosque. Our own production crew has received threats from Red Mosque supporters, which is why we have been extra careful with the rollout and messaging of the film.

The documentary ends when the Peshawar school attack happened. How safe is Pakistan now?

MN: Almost immediately after the Peshawar school attack, people took to the streets demanding justice. One of the groups that was working at the time to challenge the narrative of militancy was the #ReclaimYourMosques movement. In addition, the government also adopted the National Action Plan, a provision of which was aimed at curbing militancy and banning militant teaching at madrasas.

The military even garnered more support for its operation against terrorist groups and as a result, we are a little safer, at least for now. However, the momentum that was built earlier this year with the civil society groups has mostly fizzled out. The government has been half-hearted in implementing the provisions of the National Action Plan on ground. So, overall, I would say the aftermath is mixed.

In fact, as we speak, Aziz has again taken to the streets and is in open confrontation with the government. He promises to continue delivering fiery Friday sermons and advocating the implementation of Sharia law in Pakistan. The government has warned him of arrest if he continues to do so, but so far, Aziz hasn’t backed down and the government is not able to stop him.

How did you both develop a rapport, a common ground? Were you able to ignore the political hostility between the two countries when the documentary was being made?

HT: After filming with the two students of the Red Mosque (Zarina and Talha) in Pakistan, I realised that the students themselves were pawns in a much larger game – the ideological clash between moderate and extremist forces. The key puppeteer behind these clashes was none other than Maulana Aziz, the chief cleric of the Red Mosque. I knew that in order to fully tell this story I needed to get inside the Red Mosque itself and film with Maulana Abdul Aziz.

But how would I do that? I am an Indian, a Hindu and a woman. It would be impossible for me to enter the ‘lion’s den’, a.k.a. the headquarters of the Red Mosque. It was then that I decided to bring on Mohammed Ali Naqvi, a talented Pakistani documentarian, who became my creative partner and joined the team in the fall of 2010.

MN: When Hemal first approached me, I was conflicted. I was suspicious of outsiders wanting to make a story about Islam. Muslims had always been represented in the media in black and white, and most characterisations of Pakistan and Islam were intellectually dishonest.

Pakistan was always dismissed as a terrorist haven in the Indian press, so I was extremely suspicious about Hemal, an Indian herself, making this story. I certainly didn’t want to perpetuate stereotypes and make a polemic on my own faith. Despite my reservations, I decided to join Hemal.

Over the years I began trusting Hemal a lot more. Despite her personal tragedy of losing a friend in the Mumbai terror attacks, she approached the story without bias and submitted herself to the observational process of documentary.

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 8:57:42 AM |

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