Islamic prayers and cold baths offer hope for Indonesian drug addicts

Posted: Friday, August 16, 2002

CIBEUREUM, Indonesia (AP) -- Shivering in the early morning mist, recovering heroin addict Slamet prepares to start another day of Islamic prayer and meditation.

The 28-year-old man used to spend most of his time stealing and shooting up. Now, after eight months in an Islamic drug rehabilitation center high in the hills of west Java, he is becoming a rare success story in Indonesia's often feeble war on drugs.

''Before, people used to look at me like I was trash. All I could think about was heroin. Now, I can eat, sleep and pray like a normal person. I feel good,'' he says.

Indonesia is undergoing an explosion of illicit drug use and some social activists believe the solution lies in Islam, a faith which some 90 percent of Indonesia's 210 million people adhere to.

Slamet, along with 30 other ex-addicts, receives no specialized counseling or detoxification treatment at the center -- just a steady diet of religious devotion. In the end, the center claims a higher success rate than conventional clinics trying to combat the drug crisis.

The center is run by a nearby Islamic boarding school, or pesantren. The school, named Suryalaya, is home to around 3,000 students, from kindergarten to university level.

There are hundreds of thousands of similar schools across Indonesia. Most teach a mixture of religious and secular subjects and are rarely inspected by state officials.

Fears that Indonesia is leaning toward Islamic extremism have been fanned by reports of pesantren where students are indoctrinated with hardline anti-Western teachings. Some pesantren have been accused of having links to regional terrorists groups.

But Suryalaya is different. It specializes in the study of Sufism, the mystical form of Islam that stresses devotion to God and religious tolerance. Its 90-year-old leader is revered as a holy man who, according to tradition, can trace his teaching in a direct line back to Islam's prophet, Muhammad.

Suryalaya's 30 drug rehab centers are called Inabah, or ''returning to the correct path.'' They revolve around three Islamic principles: communal prayer, the chanting of God's name and ritual bathing.

Each of the complexes, of which one is reserved for females, is run by a husband and wife team. There are also branches in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

The day starts at 2 a.m. with a cold shower.

The first prayer of the day is then performed in the mosque followed by Arabic chanting of the phrase ''There is no god but God'' -- part of the Muslim profession of faith -- at least 700 times.

The recovering addicts then drink a cup of coffee before saying the dawn prayer, followed by more chanting. Apart from meal breaks and a couple of hours of rest or sport in the midmorning and afternoon, this combination is continued until bedtime early in the evening.

Anang Syah, the religious teacher who heads the complex in Cibeureum, says faith alone is enough to break an addict's habit. ''We don't heal them, we don't even treat them. All we do is make them aware that they belong to God,'' he says.

The clinic's founders say that around 40 percent of the addicts they treat go back to drugs when they leave, normally after about a year. No statistics are available to back up their contention.

Skeptics doubt the claim, and point out that conventional detoxification and counseling centers admit to relapse rates of around 85 percent.

The centers' wealthy clients, who have included the children of high-ranking politicians and police and army officers, subsidize those from poorer families. No one is turned away, Syah said.

Indonesia has approximately 4 million addicts.

Cheap heroin accounts for many of them, though the country has been awash with cheap Ecstasy and amphetamines since the 1990s. Thousands of nightclubs function as little more than drug dens, allegedly with the backing of corrupt security forces.

Critics say the Islamic clinics' lack of AIDS and HIV policies -- there is no routine testing or special counseling for those found out to be infected -- is irresponsible. Up to 40 percent of injecting users in some parts of Indonesia are infected with the virus, health workers say.

Drug activists also say the clinics should introduce programs to support former addicts once they return to society.

''The idea of religious-based treatment is a good one ... but for them not to deal with (AIDS) is negligent,'' says David Gordon, a Californian who runs two detoxification centers on the southern outskirts of Jakarta.

For the young addicts, getting clean is a lot easier than staying clean. But hope is in ample supply at the Inabah complexes.

Says 22-year-old Novi, two months into her stint at the female center: ''There was before and there was after. I feel like I've been reborn.''



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