By Syed Tohel Ahmed
Addiction does not discriminate based on colour or creed; it strips victims of their background and is a great equaliser. The United Kingdom has the highest level of dependent drug use in Europe. The British Crime Survey 08-09 estimates that in England and Wales alone a staggering 11.9 million people aged 16 to 59 have used illicit drugs at some point in their lives, with around 1.9 million having used in the last month.
The Muslim community is no different and is reflecting the social trend in society. This is a frightening thought and when alcohol is added to this mix the picture looks even gloomier, leaving me to conclude that the menace of criminality and drugs – both abuse and dealing – is the biggest challenge facing British Muslims.
Thankfully not everyone who uses drugs progresses on to become an addict. There are an estimated 332,000 individuals described as problem drug users (PDUs) in England alone. They have an addiction which has social, psychological, physical and legal consequence; a staggering 99% of the £15.4 billion yearly cost of crime and healthcare resulting from the use of Class A drugs is generated by PDUs.
What is striking is the growth of drug addiction in the Muslim community over the last two decades, especially given the inherent religious prohibition that exists in Islam. The Qur’an (Al-Ma’idah: 90-91) declares that ‘Khamr’ is unlawful. The word ‘Khamr’ normally means something that is ‘fermented’ hence primarily translated to mean wine or alcohol. A more encompassing meaning is that which ‘covers’ or ‘conceals’ or ‘any substance which clouds or obscures the intellect’ and therefore includes drugs. The Prophet Muhammad said: “Every intoxicant is khamr, and every khamr is prohibited” [Sahih Muslim], and Umar the second Khalifah declared: “Khamr is that which befogs the mind” [Sahih Bukhari].
In the early 80s drug use was unheard of within the Muslim community. However, by the mid 90s there was a significant cultural shift among some young Muslims. In their minds drugs and alcohol did not invoke the same abhorrence found in older generations. Hence in boroughs, like Tower Hamlets, currently almost 50% of young people in drug treatment are Bangladeshi and for adults the figure is around 39%. In the neighbouring borough of Newham, 19% of those in drug treatment are Muslims. Although it is impossible to know the actual numbers of Muslims drug users, the trend is more or less repeated in other highly populated Muslim areas.
The impact on the individual, family and society makes drug abuse potentially one of the most destructive social issues facing the community. From the very real and obvious impact on the user’s health to potential or [in some cases] eventual death; the pressure on the family that inevitably results from having a son, daughter, mother or father with an addiction is compounded by the importance of the family in Islam. The once indispensable sense of honour, respect, responsibility and duty disappears very quickly, not to mention the abuse and domestic violence that can occur.
This impact is passed on to the next generation literally. With the increase of drug abuse among Muslim girls and women, many babies are born needing treatment for withdrawal symptoms caused by the mother’s heroin use during pregnancy. This can lead to the child having long-term health complications and behavioural problems.
Drug dealing in Muslim areas is exclusively controlled by Muslims and it goes without saying that it’s a very lucrative market. Dealing drugs is a career choice just like choosing to be a doctor or a lawyer for some. The criminality associated with drugs is well documented and may partly explain why 11.8% of the prison population are Muslims whilst representing only 3% of the total UK population.
There is however some encouraging signs. The fact that so many Muslims are accessing treatment is very positive, given that a decade ago the stigma associated with drug abuse meant Muslims remaining ‘treatment naive’. In contrast to the denial of previous decades, the community in general acknowledges the problem. This is where the Muslim community needs to accelerate its work. The level of education within the family and discussion in religious institutions about the perils of drugs do not reflect the drug usage trend.
Agencies like Nafas have pioneered a more religiously sensitive and culturally appropriate treatment response for Muslims. Drug use does not negate a person’s Iman (faith). I have yet to met a Muslim drug user who when in control of his/her faculties wants to remain an addict.
Whilst it’s true that faith and family was initially unable to deter young people from delving into drugs, in actual fact for many Muslims the rediscovery of their Iman, coupled with a strong family bond, which the addiction for so long concealed, provided the catalyst for recovery from addiction.
Faith can be a major weapon against addiction and over the coming years in order to further progress in tackling drug use particularly within the British Muslim community, it is essential that the significance and role of faith and family be acknowledged and made an integral part of drug education and treatment.
Syed Tohel Ahmed is the Director of Nafas, a nationally renowned specialist drug treatment agency working with the Asian/Muslim community. He has over 15 years of professional management experience as a director and consultant in statutory and 3rd sector organisations. Mr Tohel Ahmed is also a founding director of C3ube which offers a range of proven culture, diversity, and Islam awareness training programmes.
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