Substance abuse in Islamic societies

Alcohol consumption is on the rise, and it's just the tip of the iceberg. Photo: Wiki image

NEW YORK, June 20, 2013 — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent effort to curtail alcohol consumption in Turkey has generated a fair amount of media coverage. But what about widespread substance abuse, including alcohol, in Islamic societies?

Islamic dietary law bans the use of alcohol and intoxicants, but did so in stages. The earliest Qur’an verse actually praises “wholesome drink” from the vine as a “sign for those who are wise.” 


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This was quickly superseded by verses condemning consumption once the Islamic community consolidated its hold on power. First, Muslims were prohibited from going near prayer when “intoxicated.” Later, it was said that alcohol contains some good and some evil, “but the evil is greater than the good.”

Finally, intoxicants were called “abominations of Satan’s handiwork.” Prophet Muhammad instructed his followers to avoid intoxicants altogether, saying, “Anything that intoxicates in a large quantity, is prohibited even in a small quantity.”

Once this was revealed, Muslim citizens of Medina were reputed to have immediately destroyed and emptied their alcohol containers into the street. Those enjoying cups of wine are said to have spat the alcohol from their mouths. Medina’s streets, it is recalled, ran with alcohol.

That is hardly the case today. Although alcohol is illegal in many Islamic states, consumption is on the rise. According to ISWR, a London-based market-research firm, sales of alcohol in the Middle East grew by 72 percent, against a global average of 30 percent, between 2001 and 2011.


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Diageo, the London-based maker of Johnnie Walker whisky and Smirnoff vodka posted a 16 percent rise in regional net sales in 2010 and expects sales to double in the next five years in the Middle East/North Africa region. Malaysia, a Muslim state, was named by World Health Organization as the world’s 10th largest consumer of alcohol despite its small population and size. In June 2012, health officials in Iran warned of rising numbers of alcoholics and drink-drivers.

Alcohol is just the tip of the iceberg. The World Drug Report (2010) published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) showed that Saudi authorities confiscated 12.8 metric tons of amphetamines in 2008, more than half the total of 24.3 metric tons of amphetamines seized worldwide. In addition, Saudi Arabia is the world’s sixth largest consumer of sex drugs, spending over $1.5 billion on Viagra and other anti-impotence medications annually.

The abuse of opiates and heroin is a more serious problem. Afghanistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim society, is the largest illicit opium producer of the world. Hundreds of madrassa students are reportedly engaged by Afghan farmers for poppy cultivation in major heroin-producing provinces. A 2007 UN report stated that apart from 19th century China, no other country in the world had ever produced narcotics on such a deadly scale. The UNODC says Afghanistan has around one million heroin and opium addicts out of a population of 30 million, making it the world’s top user per capita.

Iran is not far behind. The UNODC reports it has 1.2 million “drug-dependent users,” and that 2.26 percent of the population aged 15-64 is addicted to opiates. It is, in the words of one observer, “one of the most drug-addled countries in the world.” Total annual opium intercepts by the Iranian authorities are larger than in any other country, 89 percent of shipments seized worldwide in 2011. That same year, Iranian authorities executed over 600 people, more than 80 percent on drug-related offenses.


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Contrary to statements by the Iranian president, substance abuse in Iran and other Islamic societies is home-grown, not a Zionist plot. Opium has been used medicinally and recreationally in Iran since the 17th century. It also is inexpensive in Iran and other opiate-producing, opiate-transit states, cheaper than beer or sandwiches. In addition, opiates are popular because alcohol is haram (“forbidden”) and more tightly controlled by Islamic governments.

Rampant unemployment, boredom of young people with limited entertainment outlets, and tacit, even active regime support of drug traffic for profit and in service of political aims are major reasons why people turn to poppy cultivation and drug smuggling.

As pointed out in The Weekly Standard, “Iran has marketed itself as a frontline state in the war against drugs.” Europeans have assisted it with sniper rifles, training, equipment and millions in funding as part of anti-drug assistance programs. The problem is that seized drugs are sold by Revolutionary Guards to European providers. Substantial quantities also poison its own people.

Solutions to substance abuse in Islamic societies do not lie in the façade of new alcohol laws as in Turkey or in show trials and the execution of drug traffickers by the hundreds in Iran. Solutions lie in acknowledgment of the problem, elimination of stigmas that hinder treatment, and in rectifying systemic issues of economic stagnation and political repression. Whether modern Islam can be reconciled with the earliest stratum of the Qur’an that praised “wholesome drink” from the vine as a “sign for those who are wise” is an open question. 


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Michael Mickler

Dr. Michael Mickler is a journalist and church historian whose specializations are in the history of Christianity, the American religious experience, new religions, and interreligious peace-building. His interests extend to the remainder of the universe.

 

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