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How American Paranoia About Islamic Terrorism Parallels the War on Drugs

The author of the book 'Tripping With Allah' puts his Islamic identity in conversation with psychedelic drug use, and American culture.

The following is an excerpt from the new book Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs and Writing by Michael Muhammad Knight (Counterpoint Press, 2013): 

As of this moment, there is not yet a federal ruling on ayahuasca. The sacred vine used in the brew is not illegal; people sell them on eBay with the disclaimer “for research purposes only.” The problem is the leaves and their sacred DMT, a serotonergic psychedelic that qualifies as a Schedule I controlled substance under Chapter 13 of the Controlled Substance Act. When used with the vine, the leaves produce effects of intense introspection and emotional modification, accompanied by the production of vivid visual imagery and encounters with divine beings, for which I could get twenty years in prison.

Ayahuasca’s legal status remains a complicated matter because while the tea is certainly a drug—described by no less an expert than [William S.] Burroughs as the strongest drug he had ever taken—it is also a religious sacrament, and the U.S. government occasionally seems to respect freedom of religion more than other civil liberties. Upon news that Santo Daime folks in Oregon have won legal protection for their use of ayahuasca, the Mecca church remains hopeful but cautious.

If I were in Peru, it would be less complicated, since the government there has officially recognized ayahuasca as traditional medicine, cultural heritage, and spiritual practice. A relationship to particular drugs can determine your relationship to the state. Doesn’t even have to be a drug, really; some plant life cannot help but speak truth to power. Because Muslims had introduced oranges to Spain, the Christian Reconquista called for a destruction of orange trees. to properly take back Spain for Jesus, it was necessary to purge the land of infidel fruit.

In Cuban Counterpoint, a treatment of tobacco and sugar as the main actors in Cuban history, Fernando Ortiz reads the economic lives of the crops as expressions of their innate essences. According to Ortiz, tobacco is masculine, individualist, and the source of Cuba’s national pride, which it exports to the world; sugar is feminine, capitalist, and an import from the same outsiders that brought colonialism and subjugation. Tobacco is natural, smoked pure; sugar is produced from a “long series of complicated physiochemical operations.” Ortiz says that tobacco is born, “the voluntary offering of nature,” while sugar is made by human power, and “impossible without machinery.” ortiz even reads the crops through human racial politics: tobacco has integrity because it does not change its color, whereas sugar starts as brown but is “bleached and refined until it can pass for white, travel all over the world . . . and reach a better price, climbing to the top of the social ladder.”

Today, marijuana remains mostly illegal in the United States, whereas alcohol is slightly regulated; in Iran, it’s the opposite. America’s nineteenth-century war on opium targeted Chinese laborers who threatened to take railroad jobs from white men; its twentieth-century war on marijuana began with fears of Mexican farm laborers taking jobs from white men; and the movement toward Prohibition was motivated in part by prejudice against Irish immigrants and in part by America’s entry into World War I and its throbbing with anti-German hatred. The hysteria in the 1960s over marijuana and LSD had as much to do with antiwar movements and their members’ supposed use of those drugs. The 1980s War on Drugs was a war on black people, which explains why, even when more white people used illegal drugs, more black people did time for it. That’s part of the humor in George H.W. Bush, who would go on to become the first U.S. president to hold up a bag of crack on national television, telling the country during his 1988 campaign, “We are not going to be divided by class.”

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