Inside Islam's Druggy Underworld

Inside Islam's Druggy Underworld - Page 2

By Maer Roshan 07/19/11

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

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A recent UN study claimed that Iranians consume more heroin per capita than any country in the world. Why do you think are addiction rates there are so high?

Of course I can't give you a definitive answer. Perhaps where an extremist religious ideology is being shoved down people’s throats, narcotic serve in part as a pressure valve or a coping mechanism for a repressed society.

Has the heroin scene in Tehran spawned an attendant drug culture?

In Tehran there’s Park-e Mellat, a beautiful sprawling national park with a statue of Rumi and speakers all over playing classical Persian music. I remember sections of the park where the “guardians of public virtue” – religious police – generally did not go. You’d find young people holding hands and making out, and you’d also find people purveying and consuming alcohol and narcotics. Locals told me that the regime had an unofficial policy of granting a modest space for young people to experience their “vices.”

Who’s charged with arresting drug users? Regular police or Islamic vice police?

Both, in fact. There are religious police in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Hizbullah-controlled sections of Beirut. There are also movements to establish religious police in other countries –some Sunni Islamist members of parliament in Bahrain, for example, have been pressing for it – but liberals in those countries are fighting back.

Are prescription pills like painkillers or downers as popular in the Arab world as they are here and in Europe?

Yes.More and more so.  Especially in the Gulf.

Let's talk about Morocco, where your book is set. It's traditionally been a lot less fundementalist than countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran.  What’s the drug situation like there?

It’s one of the largest producers of cannabis resin on earth – a $13 billion industry that has been estimated to employ 760,000 Moroccans, mainly in the northern Rif mountains. As to domestic consumption, Hashish smoking is widespread, both among Moroccans and among visitors to the country from the West. Morocco was a hub of drug tourism in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It still is, thoughperhaps a little less so. There was a major conservative shift in the ‘80s: when the Arab world largely united in the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia spread Islamist propaganda across the region. While ostensibly recruiting young men to fight in Afghanistan, even from as far away as Morocco, the Saudi-backed “Wahhabi” ideology also changed the religious andcultural fabric of Arab societies. Drug tourism was understandably stigmatized, and police crackdowns followed.

Wahhabism is a fundamentalist version of Islam?

It is a militant form of religious Puritanism. It dates back to the 18th-century in the Arabian peninsula, when George Washington was president.  It would probably be an obscure curiosity in the Muslim world today if not for the advent of oil in Arabia, which gave Saudis the resources to export their ideology all over the region, and eventually as far out as Asia and North America.

Into the early 2000s, many mosques in Morocco were influenced by prostelytizing Wahhabists. But in 2003, a series of Al-Qaeda-style suicide bombings rocked Casablanca, and the government resolved to reclaim Islam from the extremists. Among other strategies, the king tapped the rich Moroccan tradition of Sufism – the mystical strand of Islam – to rival the hardliners. Now the conservative trend is ebbing as a result, a shift that coincides with the globalization of Moroccan culture. Meanwhile, Europeans are buying beautiful old houses in Marrakesh and Tangier and turning pockets of Morocco into almost retirement communities. It's become the the Boca Raton of France.

Along with drugs as well?

Drugs have always beenRecreational consumption of drugs among Moroccan elites is rising. Meanwhile, addiction in the shantytowns and among the Moroccan underclass is a growing problem with its own dynamic.

The Saudis are a really confusing bunch. In public, the Saudi government funds and exports a fundamentalist form of Islam. But as any party boy in New York can attest, wealthy Saudis are the most  decadent, liquored-up, drugged-out people in the world. 


Like in Iran, the government in Saudi Arabia imposes repressive religious mores on the population while urban youth in particular are increasingly exposed to freer, more open societies. Some experience other parts of the world by going abroad to study there, while others learn through satellite television and the Internet. High rates of drug and alcohol consumption are commonly ascribed to the pressures of living in a repressive environment coupled with the widespread availability of these illegal substances.

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Maer Roshan is an American writer, editor and entrepreneur who has launched and edited a series of prominent magazines and websites, including FourTwoNine.com, TheFix.com, NYQ, Punch!, Radar Magazine and Radaronline.com. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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