As a Muslim, I found myself even more susceptible to alcohol harm

Fiyaz Mughal OBE | March 2024 | 9 minutes

Fiyaz Mughal shares his experience of alcohol harm as a Muslim, and how he has campaigned for better education around alcohol harm in Muslin communities.

I’ve done quite a few things in my life that I’m proud of. I am not proud that I spent four years of my life drinking three bottles of wine a week. It’s a period that is stamped into my mind: 2015 to 2019. I’m not proud of the person I turned into during those years. I was snappy and struggled to connect with people. I was inward-looking, racked with stress, and deeply suspicious of people. It was the absolute opposite of how I feel today.  

Looking back, I was using alcohol to self-medicate for several things: a childhood marked by trauma, persecution, and dislocation; experiences of racism that had repeatedly affected my life; and a fractious upbringing under the shadow of the previous generation’s trauma. My family and I had been displaced from Uganda by the murderous regime of Idi Amin. In 1972, I became an 18-month-old asylum seeker in the UK, and the welcome wasn’t always warm.

Even as an adult, my sense of acceptance, place and space in the UK was shaky, and some people did their best to undermine it further. By 2015, I had been through years of abuse at the hands of an anti-Muslim activist who targeted me online. He was eventually jailed for what the judge in his case called “pre-meditated, determined and deeply unpleasant” behaviour. Even though the court had ruled in my favour in the end, the case left scars. I hated everything around me, feeling that I could not even feel at home in London, a place where I had lived for 37 years by that time.

The twin strands of my working life – countering Islamist extremism and tackling anti-Muslim hate crimes – brought more stress. Both these topics were contentious, contested and won me few friends. I become a focus of attention from far-right and from Islamist extremists. Both groups challenged my identity: I was either not British enough or not Muslim enough. Self-doubt, loneliness, marginalisation, and ruminative thoughts plagued me. Today, I recognise these are signs of trauma that had become a long-term issue. In 2015, I had no idea what was wrong. So, I started to drink.

There is a naïve assumption that Muslims don’t drink. But all the factors that can make anyone turn to alcohol – social norms, peer pressure, trauma and stress – apply to Muslims too

There is a naïve assumption that Muslims don’t drink. Alcohol is clearly prohibited in the Koran – it’s haram, the opposite of halal. But Muslims, of course, are no different to any other humans. All the factors that can make anyone turn to alcohol – social norms, peer pressure, trauma and stress – apply to Muslims too. And then some! When I started drinking, I found that alcohol seemed to take away my anxiety and fears. I felt like a conquering hero. I thought that my mind had opened up to another dimension – one where there was a peace that I had never known before. At least that’s what it felt like for about six to eight hours, before the comedown took me into a world of despair.  

The other thing that added to my vulnerability was that, as a Muslim, I had never drunk alcohol before and had no information about it. Most Muslims have never had alcohol as part of our family tradition, going back over generations for centuries. When it came to alcohol, I was in the dark. I didn’t know what an alcohol unit was, nor which alcoholic beverages were stronger than others. I drank spirits like a clueless novice, learning only through periods of illness that I was drinking too much. And no one had explained to me how quickly a reliance on alcohol can take root, particularly when it helps to alleviate distress, even for a few hours. Alcohol became my “go-to” tool for stress-relief.

There is a real need to make sure that Britain’s three and a half million Muslims are better informed about alcohol

What I didn’t have was a full picture of the impacts that alcohol could have on my life. I could feel that it reduced my inhibitions, clouded my judgement, and made me more relaxed. I didn’t understand how it was affecting important neurotransmitters in my brain, such as dopamine, noradrenaline, secondary messenger systems, and key parts of the emotional centres of the brain. I didn’t know that the longer someone drinks, the greater the impacts on the brain and nervous system, which means that alcohol can become a major driver for anxiety, mood disorders, memory disturbances, and depression.

I have been sober for five years now. I have never been one to preach abstinence for all, but it’s the method that worked for me. I’m glad to say that I can now look back at the time when I was drinking with a sense of self-compassion. They were very difficult times, and I know now that they do not reflect my core values nor who I am as a person. In 2020 to 2023, I was proud to be able to apply the lessons of my experiences when I served as the chair of Alcohol Change UK. It became clear to me during that time, and it remains clear in my mind, that there is a real need to make sure that Britain’s three and a half million Muslims are better informed about alcohol, and that they know how to respond effectively to alcohol problems and support family members who have got into difficulties with alcohol. Pretending that this haram substance isn’t an issue for Muslims will get us nowhere.

I sincerely hope to see Alcohol Change UK and other charities in the field doing more to engage with Muslim people and communities; to understand the cultural, social and religious factors in our lives; and work with us to develop alcohol information and support that works for us.  

Fiyaz Mughal OBE has worked for more than 25 years in the charity sector and is now a practising psychotherapist. He has been sober for five years and was chair of the trustees of Alcohol Change UK from 2020 to 2023.

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