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Inside Islam's Druggy Underworld

In many Arab nations, drugs or alcohol are punishable by death. But as Islamic expert Joseph Braude reports in a revealing interview, decades of corruption and repression have created a wave of addiction that's sweeping the region's most hard-line regimes.

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Joseph Braude explores the dark places of Islam.
Photo by Phyllis Rose

By Maer Roshan

07/19/11

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Journalist Joseph Braude has a new book out this month, The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World. It’s a true story and a fast-paced murder mystery based on nearly half a year which he spent embedded with the Moroccan police in Casablanca. He watched police bust drug gangs and crack homicide cases. Along the way, he also learned about the nexus of international drug trafficking, social disaffection, and addiction in North Africa and the Middle East, a topic he has been following for more than ten years. He tells The Fix all about it.

You've traveled across a wide number of Islamic countries during your career. How do attitudes and policies about drugs and addiction vary across North Africa and the Middle East?

They range from denial, moral denunciation, and the death penalty on one end to clinical treatment and rehabilitation programs on the other. In every Arab country and Iran you find elements of both extremes – as well as some encouraging signs of change that defy stereotypes about the Muslim world. Fundementalist countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran where religion dominates the public sphere are at a more junior stage in acknowledging the problem of addiction, while more secular countries like Lebanon and Bahrain are pursuing more enlightened forms of treatment. That said, in conservative Saudi Arabia I went for a spin one night with a cleric who takes addicts off the streets and gives them shelter in his mosque – no fire and brimstone, just TLC. And in more Lebanon, I interviewed a doctor who thinks the best treatment for addict is a long stint in prison and 50 lashes with a whip. Both these guys are probably outliers, though.


Islamic nations seem to be acknowledging the drug problem much more than they used to. Why do you think that is?

Because they can no longer get away with deceit. For more than a decade now, the region’s “closed societies” have been opening up thanks to satellite television and the Internet. States like Saudi Arabia have lost their stranglehold on information; they can only negotiate with society over the public discussion. The debilitating effects of addiction across North Africa and the Middle East are widely acknowledged now, and the debate is over how to address the problem.  eliable ata on addiction in Muslim countries is rare, but studies by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that substance abuse is much more prevalent in North Africa and the Middle East than it is in other parts of the developing world. Theories as to why this might be so include the devastating psychological effects of social repression, political upheaval, and military occupation. And in a region where the vast majority of the population is under the age of 30, every variety of youth culture is on display – from sacred to profane, from the dynamic and the innovative to utterly self-destructive.

Let’s start with Iran, which is reportedly suffering from a huge heroin problem, thanks to its proximity to Afghanistan. Some experts estimate that 10% of the country's  youth are addicted, but the government's approach to the problem has been incredibly inconsistent.  On the one hand, the mullahs have executed hundreds of people they claimed were drug users and traffickers, though human rights groups claim that many of the victims were actually democracy activists. On the other hand, there are more N.A meetings in Iran per-capita than in any other country in the world.  In fact, Ahmadinejad just held a massive public meeting to salute thousands of “rehabilitated” addicts. What’s going on there?

Iranian society includes many liberals and progressives, but they are ruled by a retrograde, reactionary regime. The government presents itself to the world as a bulwark against international drug trafficking, but has had little to say about the problem of addiction within its borders. When I lived in Tehran as a student in 1998, I watched several locally produced action movies about Iranian security services fighting Afghani drug lords – like “cowboys and Indians” – that seemed to advance the take-no-prisoners message of the state on drugs. But I also noticed that artists, intellectuals, and teachers had to find roundabout ways to explore the tragedy of addiction inside the country. (One was a wordless exhibit of watercolor paintings in a modern art museum, for example.) Now theregime is beginning to acknowledge that addiction in Iran is widespread, but influential clerics still tend to blame foreigners – Jews, Americans, and so on –for allegedly conspiring to cause the problem. Meanwhile, there are also elites in Iran, close to the regime, who are profiting from the drug trade themselves.

And yet they’re also executing drug traffickers?

Scores of alleged drug traffickers, including small-timers, have indeed been executed.

Is heroin the biggest problem in the region? I know that it is in Iran.

You can find everything in Iran if you’re wealthy enough, but what’s cheapest, thanks to massive production in nearby Afghanistan, is heroin. The locally available substance is always the cheapest: in Morocco, one of the largest producers of cannabis reason on earth, everyone doess Hashish. In Yemen, Somalia, and Djibouti, the local crop is Khat, an amphetamine-like stimulant. But if you have the wherewithal and the cash, you can pick up every sort of drug anywhere in the world.

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