Inside Islam's Druggy Underworld - Page 3

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.

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

(page 3)

I assume they regard alcoholism much differently than drug addiction.

Thee's a popular stereotype that Saudis are among the biggest drinkers in the entire Middlke East. Of course, there's no serious research to back that up. But I don't doubt it.

And yet, the Saudis also have the most stringent laws against alcohol.

Forbidden fruit. I did a lot of traveling in Saudi Arabia. In the process I got to know a bunch of wealthy families in Riyadh, Jeddah, and northern towns like Umm al-Jamajim and Hafr al-Batin, a town near near the Iraqi border. I came across tons of  moonshine brewed in bathtubs and a whole lot of imported whiskey. Some of the homebrewed stuff is called nabidh, an old Arabic word that originally referred to date wine, but to me it didn’t taste much like dates!

Where do you go to get a Cosmo in Riyadh?

Generally, alcohol is limited to the “compounds” – these giant gated communities where Westerners live. The compounds have a different set of rules: Westerners are permitted to enjoy their own culture, including the consumption of alcohol, within the compound walls. If you’re a young Saudi looking for a “good time,”  you need to find a western friend.

Another source of alcohol is the tiny neighboring kingdom of Bahrain. People say that Bahrain is “the lungs of Saudi Arabia.” Lots of Saudis who are tired of their own repressive culture go there when they need a breath of fresh air. From the Saudi Eastern Province, you can drive to Bahrain and go to the cinema, drink in public, go to night clubs, and so on.

You mentioned that there are widespread conspiracy theories that Western intelligence is engaged in a in the Muslim world. Do you think there's any truth to that claim?

Not when it comes to alcohol, but it's true in the case of cigarettes. But the real  culprit is not Western governments, but multinational tobacco companies. A few years ago I wrote a piece for The New Republic that created a real stir in many Arab countries. THere was a big lawsuits against tobacco companies in the United States that forced them to release a load of confidential documents. I spent a couple of weeks poring over them. They showed that the cigarette industry was brazenly conspiring to foment addiction in the Arab world – not unlike their pernicious work in other parts of the world. Some companies made a deliberate effort to co-opt Muslim clerics to be more permissive toward cigarettes. This was at a time when most Saudi clerics were telling people that cigarettes were a serious health hazard and probably a sin..

How did they manage that?

They did it by forming a consortium called META, the Middle East Tobacco Association. It was funded by a group of competitng tobacco companies that agreed to collaborate on an effort to hook Arabs on nicotine. Remember how I told you that Bahrain is the lungs of Saudi Arabia? That is a particularly apt metaphor when you’re talking about cigarettes. The lobbyists who were behind the Middle East Tobacco Association understood that Bahrain, which has always served as a liberal cultural outlet for the people of Saudi Arabia, could also serve as a cultural trendsetter for Saudi Arabia's youth. Saudi kids tend to distrust their own clerics when it comes to issues of popular culture and personal recreation. So META endowed an Islamic institution in Bahrain, “encouraging” its clerics to rule that cigarettes are not against the tenets of Islam.

Their plan—basically to buy religious authority to support smoking—is all clearly spelled out in the documents. There is lots of correspondence among META personnel in which the excitedly point out that by buing influence in Bahrain they can influence the consumer culture of Saudi Arabia.

Are Saudi clerics opposed to smoking?

Many were, though many have been silent on this subject. Researchers on cigarette consumption in the Middle East believe that smoking is slightly less prevalent in Saudi Arabia than in other Arab countries. Last year the Saudi government banned smoking in airports, and there is a movement to extend the ban to other public spaces.

What are the treatment options for addicts and alcoholics in the region? Are there any rehabs or clinical treatments available for Arab citizens?

Oddly, some of the poorer countries in the region, like Jordan and Morocco, happen to have some of the better facilities for treatment and rehabilitation, thanks in part to international Non Governmental Organizations who've teamed up with local government and health services to address the problem. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has operations in Egypt, the Levant, and North Africa that aim to share “best practices” and partner with with local medical facilities. You might think that because of their wealth the Gulf states would have state-of-the-art treatment and rehabilitation programs. Unfortunately, most Arab nations ignore the problem. Migrant workers constitute the majority of the population in oil-rich countries such as the UAE. IF they're caught with drugs the only “treatment” they receive is deportation to their countries of origin. A notable exception is Kuwait, where a bunch of general hospitals have developed a homegrown multidisciplinary approach to addiction treatment involving psychologists, MDs, employment counselors, and even a few Muslim clerics.

Do Islamic nations view addiction strictly as a moral failure or as a medical problem, as it is increasingly seen in the West?

Most Arab nation still view drug abuse in strictly moralistic terms – a scourge caused by loosening of Islamic mores and the negative influence of the West. There are no shows like Intervention on Saudi T.V. 

After the uprisings in Libya, Muammar Quadaffi  claimed that the rebels in his country were drug addicts who were being supplied by  "foreign elements."

Yes. When the Libyan uprising began and Quadaffi delivered that delusional diatribe against his own population, he claimed that the thousands of protesters who took to the streets were drugged-out deviants who were being fed by by Tunisians and Egyptians.

Why did he single out those particular countries?

After the breathtaking uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, he was trying reclaim the revolutionary mantle he once held in the region. “I'm the real revolutionary,” he said. THese other revolutions are fakes—‘drug induced’ coupds sponsored by Western governments. TO this day, he makes these long televised speeches claiming that Americans and Israelis and duplicitous Arabs are supplying Libya's youth with drugs to trick and confuse them. The idea of pumping revolutionaries with pot and heroin is a sound bit counterintuitive.  I imagine that  think junkie revolutionaries would prefer to kick back at home with their friends rather than take to the streets. But for Gaddafi drugs are a tool used by hostile forces to make people vulnerable to suggestion. He truly believes that that Libyan rebels are getting on drugs and taking orders from seditious foreigners.

Clearly, Quadaffi is high on something too. But is it possible that drugs played any role in this Arab “awakening?"

Not really. The uprisings are mainly about overturning corrupt and repressive regimes and about people reclaiming personal dignity and economic opportunity. As I mentioned earlier, to the extent that substance abuse has been more prevalent in Arab countries than elsewhere, drugs and alcohol may be serving as a way of coping with repression, instability, and personal degradation. If the revolutions now underway bring greater openness and opportunity to the populations, hopefully we'll see addiction rates fall.

As far as lighter, recreational consumption of alcohol and other drugs, young people have been struggling against conservative forces to enjoy these pleasures well before the dramatic events of last spring. In Bahrain, for example, I spent some time a few years back with a group called “Lana Haqq,” which means “We have a right.” It’s a coalition of feminists, liberal thinkers, musicians, and other typical victims of Islamists’ restrictive social agenda who have been fighting for freedom of (and from) religion as well as the equality of genders, lifestyles, and every skirt length. They’re vehemently against the campaign to ban alcohol. They play for a laugh sometimes, but they have also been a bulwark against reactionary and chauvinist forces in the kingdom. Now Bahrain is plagued by sectarian violence, and “Lana Haqq,” which brought together liberally-minded Shi’ites and Sunnis, isn’t as active as it was a few years ago. But when the dust settles, I’m sure the bongs will come out again.


Maer Roshan is Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of The Fix.

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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,, NYQ, Punch!, Radar Magazine and You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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