Health: House on fire

No ifs or ands either

I am sitting in a park in Queens, reflecting on the diversity of my fellow New Yorkers as well as my fellow Muslims. Here are the loose limbed Albanians and the fireplug Mexicans playing soccer. Here are large, fit Polish men carefully assembling goal posts while their wives and girlfriends look on from the sidelines. A fascist-looking football practice of tiny boys in uniform is under way. A small cricket game is happening as well, with brown faces and hands holding cigarettes while in play. Here on the other side is the Muslim hijabi and her baby. And further in the corner are the Goths all dressed in black, a new presence in the park, romping amongst themselves, and passing around a rubber hose to inhale from.

All so diverse. But if any of these people saw his house on fire, would he not try to escape, and save his family? Indeed, wouldn’t most (if not all) try to save their neighbors from the flames? It is likely that basic human solidarity would unite Goth and Muslim and Mexican and skinhead and immigrant. At least up to a point.

But if that is so, then why don’t we all help each other to escape being consumed in the flames of cigarette addiction? Somehow we do not see the vast scale of the conflagration, the charnel house, the enormous ash heap – with 400,000 of our fellow Americans lying dead of smoking related cancer and heart disease every year.

Over the last year, MCN’s anti-smoking program, Nafis Salaam, has been funded by American Legacy Foundation to explore the vexing problem of Muslims smoking. Especially in some US immigrant communities, Muslim rates of use, abuse and addiction range from 20 to 40 percent, as indicated in our January 2010 survey of 408 Muslim New Yorkers – and studies show that the situation is even worse among Muslims in Europe and in countries of origin. Our high rate of tobacco use contrasts dramatically with Islamic religious rulings, which are clearly on the side of protecting human life. This tragic lack of self-control reflects poorly on our understanding of ourselves and of our traditions. It is also a needless expense – and it leads to hundreds of thousands of Muslim deaths each year. You and I may not smoke. Still, let us consider all the lives at risk, not only “our own.”

Smoking affects so many others besides the smoker. Approximately 53,000 Americans die annually due to secondhand smoke related illnesses. The EPA estimates that secondhand smoke is responsible for between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis, pneumonia and ear infections in infants and children less than 18 months of age annually, resulting in between 7,500 and 15,000 hospitalizations each year. Secondhand smoke costs the United States $10 billion a year in health care bills, lost wages and other costs, according to a study released in August 2005 by the Society of Actuaries.

In addition to studying the issue of the dangers of tobacco and raising awareness at mosques, we have joined with the Brooklyn Smoke Free Partnership to promote mosques formalizing their anti-smoking policies and in partnership with the NYC Department of Health offering paid focus groups to measure smokes perceptions and interest in support groups. However, with the exception of a few visionary leaders, most mosque leadership is very, very slow to respond.

This Ramadan we are calling on mosques to get their act together. Besides mentioning quitting in sermons, imams should delegate to a committee a plan to make the iftars “green” – that is, recycling paper plates and cutlery and cutting back on lights, at the very least. Related to concern for the environment, mosques should post no smoking signs that make clear that smoking outside the mosque doors is also not acceptable. And leaders need to take a deep breath and also make clear that Hookah smoking is unacceptable behavior.

What’s that you say? “See you later”? Or… “playah hater” perhaps? Yes, I can imagine a young Muslim woman giving me a look as if to say “how dreary!” as she flaunts her chic and daring independence in the El Moot Hookah Bar. Our study showed that Muslim women are smoking shisha at significantly greater levels than they smoke cigarettes. And among young men Shisha pipes are nearly as popular as baggy plaid shorts and flip flops – probably even more addictive, and certainly more dangerous. And this trendy young scene is growing because it is an Arabian nights Orientalist version of identity – because some people apparently like inhaling strawberry vanilla passionfruit and maple nut fudge along with their tobacco – and because our community is minimizing the dangers through lack of information and deliberate denial.

But young Muslims have escaped the mosques in droves because of such moralistic scolding. How are we to counter the corporate onslaught that insists that slowly poisoning yourself and your friends is cool?

There is some awareness, however – 61 percent of our survey respondents thought that Hookah/argileh leads to other forms of tobacco use – and the many young Muslims who participated also thought this way. In response, in June 2010 my program convened a group of young Muslims, and they quickly formed “Off the Hook,” a Facebook page of over 100 Muslim youth. Several youth recently participated in a dialogue with Hookah café owners as well. Obviously these cafes are making money from unhealthy behavior – but at the same time, their owners have families to support. Even the option of these cafes promoting more healthy brands of tobacco is not a real option, since studies show that not only do the herbal brands create carbon monoxide and carcinogens in really large quantities, like tobaco, but the amount of first and second hand smoke is 200-300 times greater than cigarette smoke.

Ramadan is coming, that time to do battle with bad habits and clear our minds and lungs. It is a time of burning and purification – not burning and corruption of body and addicted mind. But we all have something we need to work on and we are all in this together. So lets help each other escape the flames and smoke.

Adem Carroll is Director of the Muslim Consultative Network (MCN), which works to strengthen and unify the diverse New York City Muslim community through education, collaboration, capacity-building and social justice advocacy. If you are interested in quitting, getting your loved one or colleagues to quit, or just join the youth group, please contact Sister Megan Putney at Muslim Consultative Network at Megan.m.Putney[at] or the Off the Hook Facebook page.

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