VIEW: Dealing with drugs —Saleem H Ali
Islam has provided strong and sound guidance against intoxicants of all kinds; it is time that the energy and fervour of Friday sermons be channelled towards such seminal social issues
On a recent research visit to the Pacific nation of Fiji, I encountered a young native man who approached me with a rather inaudible “A’salaam Alaikum”. His eyes were bloodshot and fatigued but he had a broad smile and greeted me warmly. “My name is Mustafa,” he said with some measure of pride, “and I converted to Islam last week.”
He continued: “I became a Muslim because Islam does not allow grog and alcohol.” I soon discovered that “grog” was the colloquial name for a mild indigenous narcotic extracted from the roots of the kava plant (Piper methysticum) that is found across the Pacific islands (Australians also use the word “grog” as slang for alcohol).
I was accompanying one of my graduate students, conducting an environmental health survey around a gold mine on the main island of Viti Levu. In each village we visited, we were culturally obliged to perform a ceremony in which “grog” roots were gifted to the chief of the village (known as the sevu sevu ceremony). Unfortunately, this was the only way to get a good response rate for our surveys. I felt like a drug dealer, but my student who had lived in Fiji for two years previously as a US Peace Corps volunteer assured me that the kava narcotic was very mild and entirely legal worldwide.
Nevertheless, Mustafa, was clearly rebelling against the tradition of “grog” in his culture to embrace what he considered the “drug-free” world of Islam. Fiji has a sizeable Muslim population, largely comprising the descendants of Indian slaves brought to the island by the British to cultivate sugarcane in the nineteenth century. Mustafa had been visited by some evangelists from among these Indo-Fijian Muslims, who told him how the Taliban had abolished drugs.
While, there is considerable evidence to support that the Taliban had initially curtailed poppy production in Afghanistan, the story is far more complicated. According to some accounts from journalists who travelled to the Southern provinces, as the Taliban’s source of revenues began to dry up towards early 2001, they started to tax poppy production and sought revenues from the drug economy as well.
Whatever the story may be, one fact is clear: opium production in Afghanistan has boomed since the Karzai government took power. According to the US State department’s Bureau of Narcotics and Drug Enforcement, “Afghanistan remained the world’s largest producer of opium in 2006, cultivating 172,600 hectares of opium poppy. The export value of this opium harvest, $3.1 billion, was approximately one-third of Afghanistan’s combined licit and illicit GDP of $9.8 billion. Approximately 25 percent of the opium’s value, $755 million, was paid to farmers, with the rest going to the narcotics traffickers.”
This is a source of tremendous embarrassment for the US government. Providing alternative livelihoods for the farmers is tough when the price of the competing cash crop like poppy is several-fold greater than any other agricultural product.
Pakistan has thankfully not got a major drug production problem. But this could change. Pakistan saw a 39 percent decrease in opium poppy cultivation in 2006, to approximately 1,908 hectares, of which 1,545 hectares were harvested (less than 2% of Afghanistan’s harvest). We do, however, share a nefarious history during the Russo-Afghan war when drug money was allowed to finance the mujahideen with American acquiescence.
Furthermore, we have a growing problem of drug addiction and of acting as a transit state for drugs from Afghanistan. Curiously, the drug producing areas such as Kala Dhaka, are also within the relatively conservative and religious Frontier. Here it is important to consider the classification of the term “drugs,” since it has several attributes that need to be disaggregated: addictive agent, stimulant, narcotic (causing numbing of senses), hallucinogen (giving a false sense of reality) and depressant.
Tobacco products have nicotine and are thus highly addictive stimulants but do not have the other psychoactive attribute of drugs. Alcohol has more of the attributes of a drug than tobacco. However, both are problematic for society in various ways (though as I have argued before in these pages, the dangers of alcohol are far greater than tobacco on clinical cost basis).
In a conversation with a very candid Pashtun Islamiyat teacher earlier this year, I was told that niswar (a form of chewable tobacco) was consumed widely in many madrassahs, though it is discouraged on theological grounds by the establishment. It is surprising that the clerics do not rise more resolutely to address such an important social issue from within their own ranks.
We also need to deal with the growing tendency among many liberal commentators to approach this sensitive matter with a carte blanche legalisation policy. While a technical case can be made for legalising tobacco, it can certainly not be made for legalising opium. As the experience of China in the nineteenth century shows a licentious policy with strong narcotics (imposed on the Chinese by the British as a result of the opium wars) can be a national calamity.
Opium and its heroine products are extremely addictive and quite different from kava roots or even marijuana (chars), which has a stimulatory ingredient that counteracts its narcotic properties (hence its controlled legalisation in Holland).
The only way to stop the opium epidemic in China was strict law enforcement as well as cultural pressure. However, if poppy can be used for other products, we may also have a potential solution. Some scholars as well as Afghan farmers have suggested that the government help establish a pharmaceutical industry that can use poppy seeds for morphine or codeine manufacturing.
Some clerics have tried to justify drug production by saying it is “poison for the West,” without realising that it is first and foremost a collective poison for us all. Ironically, they seem to use the contorted logic of Fidel Castro when he stopped smoking cigars thirty years ago and made a statement about tobacco being something you “exported to your enemies”.
Islam has provided strong and sound guidance against intoxicants of all kinds; it is time that the energy and fervour of Friday sermons be channelled towards such seminal social issues. At the same time, the government must also ensure that Pakistan does not become a conduit state for drugs and arms — which collectively are a major source of many of our social and political woes. The same can be said for millions of people worldwide who fall prey to addiction in all its many malicious forms.
As the frontline state in so many ways, let us not disillusion our Fijian friend Mustafa, who so idealistically embraced Islam to find salvation from all substances that subdue and subvert our senses.
Dr Saleem H. Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and a senior fellow at the United Nations-mandated University for Peace. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org