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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Muslim Youth and Drugs: The Reality

Lobna Mulla

Drug use. “It only happens to those ‘Americans.’ My son or daughter would never do such a thing — they are good kids. They stay out of trouble and they go with me to the masjid.” Are you really convinced this is true? Unfortunately, these statements are all too common and are a reflection of the state of denial and/or naiveté in which we live. The sad reality is that there are more Muslim youth involved in drugs than we wish to know about. Drug use among Muslims is a creeping enemy that involves the abuse of substances ranging from the inhaling of household products (paint, sprays, etc.) to shooting heroin.

“… But we live in a good neighborhood, and my child goes to an Islamic school.” The list of statements of denial continues, but the reality cannot be reasoned away. Regardless of their gender, age, economic or social status, or ethnicity, Muslim youth are not immune to the dangerous world of drugs. And the more we — the American Muslim community — deny this problem, the worse it will get.

So what can we do? First, we must openly talk about drugs. We must remove the tape from the sealed box that we’ve thrown into the darkest corner of our closet — along with other taboo topics such as premarital sex and alcohol.

To get some sense of the extent of this problem, The American Muslim interviewed several youth and adults, and asked them to share their exposure to drug use. Although we began writing this article thinking we would find only one or two youth that may have dabbled in marijuana or who know someone else who had, what we learned was shocking. Of all those interviewed, 70% knew of a Muslim who was or is involved with drugs, and 50% said they had been offered marijuana or had seen it in school.

In this article, we will share two accounts of Muslim youth involvement with drugs, and the discussions of Muslim youth as to why some of them may succumb to drugs, as well as ways to prevent its use. The two youth that we will talk about are unknown to each other, but they share similar backgrounds. They both come from upper-middle class, suburban immigrant families, and were both born and raised in the United States. They both started out experimenting with marijuana. However, the two of them live very different lives today.

To begin, Ibrahim’s parents were well known and active members of the community and local masjid. Ibrahim attended private school most of his life, received good grades, and participated in sports. So with all of these positive factors, what went wrong? Well, as many children of immigrant families experience, Ibrahim had a hard time fitting in with the other students at school, so he began associating with the wrong type of friends. By the time he was 16, he was drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Within two months of his first use, he was smoking marijuana three times a week.

When The American Muslim asked Ibrahim how and why he started, he stated, “I was on a trip with a friend, and we were approached by a total stranger who offered us marijuana… It was just something to do.” He said that he had never previously contemplated using it. He continued, “It was peer pressure. I wanted to fit in, so if my friends were doing it, I needed to do it too. In retrospect, I had an identity crisis. I didn’t have a strong sense of self-worth and I definitely did not have a Muslim identity. The combination of wanting to fit in and not knowing who I should be didn’t give me any reason to avoid using marijuana. Using it became a method to escape reality.”

The point to learn from this account is that our teens do not have to search hard for drugs — in fact, they don’t even have to actively seek them. Simply being in the wrong state of mind and feeling negatively about himself and his parents made Ibrahim vulnerable to suggestion, and that was all that was needed to convince him to try marijuana.

Negative associations was key to Ibrahim’s experimentation with drugs. We asked him what attracted him to his friends, and he told us that it had to do with losing respect for his parents. Ibrahim had an attitude of “What do they know?” towards them, and their relationship suffered from poor communication. “The farther I got away from family ties, the closer I got to shady types who were involved in nefarious activities. High school is all about fitting in. You are with the same people day in and day out, so you want to become like them.”

Alhamdulillah, Ibrahim turned around. After a bad experience with marijuana in the 12th grade, he stopped using it. Starting college and leaving his old high school friends was also a way out for him. He didn’t feel pressured into fitting in with anyone in college. “If you are still with the same group of friends in college, you are finished. But for me, I left them behind… I had a new beginning.” Over the course of the next five years, Ibrahim re-entered Islam and gradually dropped other un-Islamic practices such as drinking and dating. He is now an active member of his community.

The second Muslim youth we will talk about who succumbed to drugs is Laila. She also started with marijuana, but at a much earlier age — she started smoking in the 6th grade and had tried heroin by the 9th grade. Unfortunately, Laila’s story is far different from Ibrahim’s — we were unable to speak to her directly because she is currently in jail. We interviewed her father, Ahmed, who told us that the signs of use were there, but he didn’t pay attention to them until it was too late.

He admitted that he and his wife, from whom he is now divorced, fought a lot. He described his family as “dysfunctional.” When we asked why he felt his daughter had used drugs, he replied, “The American Medical Association suspects that some people have a genetic inclination towards addiction. It is a disease that makes people deny they have a problem. Addicts use drugs because they feel misery, whether perceived or real. So they use drugs to escape their misery, while the drugs themselves perpetuate feelings of depression. It becomes a vicious cycle.”

Ahmed added that Laila felt inadequate and had low self-esteem. “When the television portrays beautiful women to be only blond-haired and blue-eyed, and you aren’t, you feel like crap. So you try to do what it takes to be accepted. All of her friends at school were white, and Laila wanted to fit in. So if they did drugs, she did drugs.”

As to how she started, Ahmed felt that it began with experimentation. “At that age, kids always want to experiment so they experiment with all the things society tells them they shouldn’t. This desire to experiment coupled with a dysfunctional family set the stage for her drug use. From the many hours I spent in rehabilitation with my daughter, I made an important observation. I saw that females went into heavy drug use when their mothers weren’t there for their daughters, and males did the same when their fathers neglected them.”

When Ahmed attempted to take charge of the situation, it was already a losing battle. Laila is addicted to heroin, the most addictive drug of its kind. Although several attempts at rehabilitation have been made, she has always ended up back on drugs. Although she stayed sober long enough to graduate from college with a 4.0, she soon resumed her life as an addict. Ahmed said that his daughter feels that she can “have fun now, and wise up later… The problem with this mentality is that only 5% of these addicts ever get the chance to wise up. The rest either die from an overdose, get killed, or end up in jail.

“The world of drugs is scary and dangerous,” added Ahmed. “Drug dealers now deal on credit and make home deliveries. My daughter is 20-years old and can’t support her $500-a-week habit on her own, so she resorts to illegal activities. She’s now in jail for smuggling and stealing.”

Reasons Youth Use Drugs

As the above accounts reflect, the main reason youth use drugs is to feel popular or fit in. This desire coupled with feelings of insecurity and curiosity can motivate them to do things that they know are wrong. Many aspects of middle school and high school life conflict with Islamic teachings: dances, dating, parties and revealing clothing. If they are not counterbalanced with alternatives, Muslim youth will justify engaging in bad activities to satisfy their desire to fit in.

Mohammed, 19, was asked to describe his exposure to drugs in high school. “I used to go to parties because I wanted to be like everyone else, telling myself I wasn’t going to do anything haram, which I didn’t. However, the environment was very bad. It’s just like you see it on television — someone would come up to you and say, ‘Hey, want to take a hit [smoke marijuana].’ And then if you don’t, they continue to offer and say, ‘Come on man, it’s good stuff.’ Alhamdulillah, I never touched anything, but the pressure is strong. My advice is to avoid these situations altogether.”

Another youth, Mariam, 18, said that the temptation to fit in is very strong. Even as a young Muslimah who wears hijab, Mariam was offered marijuana in high school. “People who used pot at school felt that everyone should participate in smoking it.” Mariam also said that being surrounded by drugs makes you accept it more. “It grows on you,” reflected Mariam, “… even to the point where I really wanted to try it.”

Ways to Prevent Drug Use

Solving the problem of youth involvement in drugs requires youth, parents and the community working together. These are recommended solutions:

Parents

As parents, we must first look at how we raise our sons and daughters. Open communication between parents and children must be established and encouraged. Suhail Mulla, a social worker who deals with troubled teens and their families, made these comments: “Many parents who immigrated here came for material benefit — whether they be Latinos, Asians, Persians, etc. But in the process of seeking material gains, they lost their children. All too often, parents are naïve of their surroundings, while their children are eaten up by society.”

“Discipline and communication,” continued Suhail, “are key to having a healthy family life. I see many families that are lacking a full system of discipline. Parental expectations need to be well defined, and consequences for not meeting these expectations must be in place and enforced. Muslim parents living in the United States must be ready to meet the challenges of raising teens in a dangerous environment.”

Mariam also had advice for parents, “Get on the same level with your children, and get closer to them. Don’t try to cover up subjects like drugs and sex. They are more knowledgeable of these things at a younger age.” She also felt that parents should explain to their children that they are different from others because they are Muslim.

The idea that needs to be emphasized here is that drugs are everywhere, and we are foolish if we believe that our children will never see or think about them, or even use them.

Youth

It is important that Muslim youth associate with other good Muslim youth in order to follow the Qur’an and “enjoin what is right and forbid what is evil.” One way that youth can seek positive associations and support is to join or start a Muslim Student Association at school. Ibrahim, whose story was shared earlier in this article told us, “Muslim teens shouldn’t just look for other Muslims, but good ones. I smoked my first cigarette with my Muslim friend in the alley behind a masjid.”

Mohammed shared his father’s advice against using drugs, “Your deen is like a cup. Once you do something haram, it gets cracked and it leaks. The more your cup leaks, the sooner it will break, and the easier it becomes to do more haram.”

Mariam also commented, “If your Islam isn’t established by the time you reach high school, you will submit to the pressures.” A similar sentiment was shared by Rhonda, 21: “I didn’t take drugs because of my strong foundation. When I saw others doing drugs in school, I wasn’t even interested.” Again, keeping good company, avoiding tempting situations, and striving to practice Islam fully are the best measures for staying away from drugs.

Community

It is imperative for our local masjids to provide alternatives to the many temptations present in our society. Classes, sports, and social gatherings should be offered to youth. Friday and Saturday night activities are especially important for older teens.

Suhail felt that all youth activities should be centered around the masjid. “We have to change our whole mentality towards the youth. They have to be the focus of what happens at the masjid; otherwise drug use is going to continue and get worse.”

We must be mindful, however, of the false sense of security some parents feel because their families are active at the masjid. Several of the youth interviewed mentioned that some of the parents of drug users were active members of the community, but were absolutely clueless about their children’s problem. Some of the users even attend the masjid regularly themselves. A particular masjid has such a bad problem with marijuana use among some of its youth that they are constantly trying to stop them from smoking it on masjid grounds. The emphasis of masjid programs must be on fulfilling the needs of our youth.

Open forums on issues such as drug use must also be made available. In this manner, teens will realize that they are not alone in feeling affected by the pressures of school and society. Ahmed, Laila’s father, urged me to share this message with our readers: “Mosques should be more aware of the social needs of the Muslims and offer a healthy environment where boys and girls can meet and get to know one another. Our youth need to feel as though they belong. The Muslim community must abandon the emphasis on appearances, and look at the substance of the people. We need to stop talking about issues like growing beards, eating halal meat, and wearing galabiyyahs. What is this going to do for us when our kids are doing drugs? During khutbahs, we should talk about the plight of the American Muslims. We are a worthy cause. Discussing our problems is more relevant than discussing those of the Middle East because we live here.”

To summarize, American Muslims really need to wake up and face the reality that is all around us. We must accept the fact that our children are susceptible to all the evils in our environment, including the drugs that surround them everyday. We cannot deny this fact. The only way we can truly protect our children from the influence of drugs is to start interacting with them so that we understand the pressures they face. Please listen to the voices in this article that are calling out — they are just like the voices of your own children.

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