Rehab vs. Religion in Rocky Egypt

By Joseph Braude 09/04/12

Drug addiction has escalated in Egypt since the revolution. In part two of The Fix's report from Cairo, treatment activists are racing against time—and Islamic traditions—to gain acceptance.

Mustafa Mizu via author

Both the former Egyptian government and jihadist groups have for many years exploited drugs, drug traffickers, and addicts as, respectively, tools of social control and sources of funding and fighters. In the aftermath of 2011's Arab Spring, with the opening of both its society and its borders, the nation's demand for, and supply of, illegal substances has skyrocketed, resulting in an unprecedented health epidemic. Yet drug treatment is absurdly lacking—there are only 600 treatment beds for Egypt's estimated 7 million or more addicts—mostly young males between 15 and 25, the demographic most vulnerable to recruitment by militants of any stripe. Despite the pressing need, some Islamists reject modern rehabilitation practices such as the 12 Steps on ideological grounds. 

For some hardline Islamists, the word “innovation” (bid’a in Arabic) is not a virtue but a sin: Any idea the Qur’an and traditions of the prophet Muhammad don’t explicitly condone, like “feminism” or “liberal democracy,” is inherently un-Islamic and therefore out of bounds. This principle poses a dilemma, for example, to an Islamist who happens to be a drug addict and wants to go through a 12-step program. Since no one in 7th-century Arabia ever joined an NA group or used the “12 Traditions” to connect with God, the logic goes, nobody should today, either.

But now is a time of flux in the Arab Muslim world, in which Islamists are breaching some of their own red lines in order to gain power. Take the leadership of the Egyptian Salafi movement, which has long opposed democracy as an un-Islamic invention of the West. The group surprised observers last year by forming a political party and fielding candidates in the Egyptian elections. Hopes abound that Salafis will evolve in other ways, too, and do more to reconcile their ideology with the complex needs of their followers. Others fear that the movement will simply use its electoral gains to subvert the democratic process and impose its strident views.

Here in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city and a onetime cosmopolitan capital of the eastern Mediterranean, Salafism looms large in politics and culture. Mustafa Mizu, 48, sports a prayer scar on his forehead and the signature Salafi beard and trimmed mustache. (Shaving is an innovation and those who do it should be beaten, according to Malik bin Anas, a companion of the prophet.) Long before his forehead scabbed from hours of daily prostration in a mosque, Mizu bruised and track-marked his arms over two decades of continuous heroin addiction. “Even back then I wanted to come closer to God,” he recalls over hibiscus tea in a seaside Alexandria cafe, “but no amount of repentance was going to get me off smack.”

Mizu resolved to buck the Salafi movement’s group-think by innovating the world’s first Salafi rehab center.

Ten years ago, Mizu was rescued by a Cairo-based "Freedom" rehab center founded by psychiatrist Ehab El Kharrat. His NA sponsor and fellow addicts helped him accept the 12 Steps’ principle of reliance on a higher power, he says, ironically bringing him closer to Islamic tenets than any mosque preacher had. Clean at 38 for the first time since boyhood, he faced the struggle, shared by long-term addicts everywhere, to re-imagine his own identity. He embraced Salafism—from the unusual perspective of one whose path to Islam had run through a school of thought with Christian American roots—and he resolved to buck the movement’s group-think by innovating the world’s first Salafi rehab center. “Some of the brothers were angry because they thought the 12 Steps were a new religion,” he recalls. In so many words, he told them to go to hell.

Mizu earned a certificate in rehab treatment from Kharrat’s center in Wadi al-Natrun, then worked to persuade his fellow Salafis that the practice merited their approval. Sheikh Muhammad Ismail, a Salafi leader in his native Alexandria, had been trained as a clinical psychologist and proved relatively easy to persuade. Together they Islamized the language of the 12-step program: Its Christian-inspired references to God had been translated into Arabic as “the Lover” (al-Muhibb) and “the Carer” (al-Mu’tani)—neither being among Islam’s “99 Beautiful Names of God”—and so they replaced them with kosher alternatives such as “the Friendly” (al-Wadud) and “the Gentle” (al-Latif).

Their center was born during the final years of Mubarak’s regime. In the same way that Presbyterian psychiatrist Kharrat struggled to persuade the Egyptian army that his own facility wasn’t a monastery, Mizu and his backers had to show the regime that the world’s first Salafi rehab wouldn’t be a center for terrorist indoctrination. They promised to do no proselytizing, stipulating only that addicts pray five times daily and fast during the holy month of Ramadan. During my visit to Mizu’s center, a large house with a swimming pool in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Alexandria, I met an Egyptian fashion designer and a teenage metal head. Both seemed set on maintaining a secular lifestyle after their rehabilitation.

Though detractors within the movement maintain that the 12 Steps are heresy, Mizu has fans among the leadership, and some would like him to contribute an anti-addiction strategy to the official platform of the Salafi “Nour” party. Such an initiative would make Nour the first Islamist party to join the Social Democrats in adding drugs to the national agenda—and render the “ultraconservative” party more progressive on the issue than the reputedly moderate Muslim Brotherhood.

While the Salafi movement now maintains one rehab facility, the larger Brotherhood, with its formidable network of social-service institutions, has none. Perhaps this contrast stems from the tighter structure of the Brotherhood’s leadership: to reach the upper echelons, one has to pass through years of ideological testing and demonstrate self-discipline and a stable lifestyle. Thus the chances that an ex-junkie like Mizu would gain the trust of the Brotherhood’s higher-ups are slim. Alas, with millions of addicts navigating life under a revolution, it’s essential to the stability of Egypt that someone does.

Joseph Braude, a Middle East specialist, broadcasts a weekly commentary in Arabic on Morocco’s Radio MED network. He is the author, most recently, of The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World (Random House: Spiegel & Grau, 2011). 

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Joseph Braude, a Middle East specialist, broadcasts a weekly commentary in Arabic on Morocco’s Radio MED network. He is the author of The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World. Find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.