‘The war against drugs needs to be reimagined in a new way’

Inside the organisations helping Muslims with substance abuse issues during Ramadan

Many young South Asian men in the UK find it hard to access help owing to the stigma attached to substance abuse within their communities. Stock photo by Drazen Zigic/Getty Images

“I would score an hour before iftar, but it would be too early and I couldn’t control myself so I’d just end up using,” says Raf, who started using cannabis at the age of 14 and by 20 was taking cocaine regularly. “My thinking around it was, ‘As long as I fast during the day it’s OK.’ It was crazy.”

For the past four years, Raf, 35, has worked as a substance abuse practitioner for Al-Hurraya, a Nottingham-based organisation that provides culturally appropriate addiction and mental health services for people from ethnic minority and refugee backgrounds. During the month of Ramadan, he often sees an increase in the number of Muslims seeking help.

“It’s a bit like the new year, when everyone wants to join the gym,” he says. “We have a lot of people calling in. We do their initial assessment and go from there.”

Raf understands the needs of his clients because he has faced many of the same challenges. “Cocaine was my drug from the age of 20 to 31,” he says. “Alcohol wasn’t really a thing for me. Because of my background I’ve always been told it’s haram. Then I found this was a loophole — no one knows I’m doing it, no one can smell it or see it on me.”

Raf explains that he paid a heavy price for his years of drug use, racking up thousands of pounds’ worth of debt and eventually separating from his wife and son, with whom he has now reconciled. Like many young South Asian men in the UK, he found help hard to access owing to the stigma attached to substance abuse within his community. He attributes his addiction to growing up in a predominantly white area of Nottingham and feeling that he never truly fitted in. 

The stigma surrounding issues such as addiction places barriers in the way of many South Asians seeking help

According to an NHS survey published in 2021, Black (11.7%) and white British adults (8.9%) are significantly more likely to have used illegal drugs than their Asian peers (3.4%).

Raf’s family recognised that he was struggling and, over the years, did everything they could to help. Despite repeated attempts to get clean, however, he continued to relapse.

“I had several chances to reform when I was sent to Bangladesh and had my passport kept from me, and also private treatment here in the UK, but that didn’t work,” he says. “Then I had a really bad psychotic breakdown and realised things needed to change.”

That’s when Raf reached out to Al-Hurraya

“Initially, I started Al-Hurraya as a mutual aid support group to help people who’d gone through a journey like mine with addiction,” says Asad Fazil, 48, the organisation’s founder.

Fazil’s journey into 15 years of addiction began at the age of 16, when he discovered cannabis. By the time he was 20, he had become a regular heroin user. Like Raf, he believes that his struggles stemmed from childhood trauma.

“I was addicted to many substances for a good part of my life,” he says. “Addiction is a disease and a progressive illness, but I couldn’t really find the support for it or talk about it at home. There are a lot of hidden harms within our communities, because we don’t disclose things like mental health issues, domestic violence, substance misuse and forced marriages — we just push them under the carpet.”

The 2021 NHS survey found that Asian men are more likely to have used illicit drugs — 5.9% of men, compared to only 0.4% of women. The stigma surrounding issues such as addiction and mental health, however, places barriers in the way of anyone seeking help, regardless of gender.

After a series of attempts at sobriety, Fazil, with the support of his wife, sought treatment at a mainstream addiction service in Nottingham. It was during that time that he came up with the idea for Al-Hurraya, which he set up five years later.

“I started volunteering throughout my treatment and found major gaps in provision,” he says. “But the huge gap was the lack of cultural competency in the services — that’s when I started Al-Hurraya.”

“I developed interventions which were culturally specific and came up with the first Islamic 12-step recovery module. It includes Islamic hadiths, so it’s a spiritual programme with psychosocial interventions,” he added.

Raf believes that Al-Hurraya provides a vital service for Muslim and minority clients. “We understand what they’re going through,” he says. “We’ve got lived experiences and we understand the barriers in the community.”

Culturally appropriate spaces for those battling with addiction have also opened in other parts of the UK. The London-based grassroots collective Coffee Afrik undertakes similar work, providing addiction services for ethnic minorities across Tower Hamlets and Harrow, with particular emphasis on the Somali community. The group has supported more than 300 people with substance abuse issues in conjunction with government programmes such as Project Adder.

In 2018 Coffee Afrik opened its first “crisis cafe”, a food co-op dedicated to people with issues of trauma and addiction, in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets. Founder Abdirahim Hassan explains: “In the last 10 days of Ramadan we have various actions, including feeding people at a hostel, which we do often, but the crisis cafe is specifically for Muslims using drugs, so it will focus on recovery and our 12-step programme, centred on Islam and sabr (patience).”

Hassan believes that overly clinical settings, language barriers and a one-size-fits-all approach to the provision of addiction services could prevent meaningful recovery and increase the frequency of relapse for many of Coffee Afrik’s clients. That’s why the organisation places the culture and identity of users at the forefront of its services.

“The war against drugs is not working,” he says. “It needs to be reimagined in a new way that has depth and has culture, and that honours and really respects people and speaks to them using their language.”

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