Malaysia mosque a source of hope for heroin addicts

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - For 30 years, Feisal Fakharudin lived a heroin addict's life, sleeping on streets, getting into trouble with police and rotating in and out of drug treatment centers.

In Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country where drug addiction is still taboo, his habit made him a social outcast until he found support from an unlikely source -- the Ar Rahman mosque nestled in the bustling capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

After performing his prayers, Feisal slips upstairs away from his fellow worshippers to receive a dose of methadone from a drug-treatment clinic - the world's first to operate in a mosque, according the World Health Organization.

"In the past, there was no one to help me," said Feisal, who said he used to feel like the "scum of society."

Feisal attributes the success of his treatment to the spiritual guidance he gets from mosque clerics, as well as the methadone syrup dispensed twice a week by medical staff.

Allowing the mosque to set up the methadone clinic, which started up over two years ago, has raised eyebrows in a country that imposes the mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers. Those caught in possession of drugs above specified quantities face trafficking charges and are presumed guilty -- laws that human rights groups say contravene international fair trial standards.

Rusdi Abdul Rashid, the chief coordinator of the University of Malaya's Center of Addiction Sciences (UMCAS) that runs the clinic, had to work hard to convince mosque officials and religious authorities to allow the clinic.

Islamic authorities in Malaysia - which has been a leading voice of moderate Islam - eventually gave the green light for the treatment, deciding that methadone was not a banned substance under Islam.

"Methadone is a God-gifted medication. It helps with long-term treatment of drug addiction and prevents patients from relapsing," said Rusdi, a lecturer and consultant psychiatrist who has been treating patients with methadone for 10 years.

UMCAS has plans to expand the program to a third of the country's 6,000 mosques by 2015, aiming to reach 72,000 heroin users. Malaysia has an estimated 350,000 drug addicts, which could rise to half a million by 2015 partly because of a high relapse rate, according to Rusdi.

The centre also wants to enlist Christian churches and Hindu temples, starting with the country's iconic Hindu temple at Batu Caves on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

The government's Department of Islamic Development (Jakim), which enforces Islamic laws, has also joined forces with the university to combat drug addiction. Ghaffar Surip, an official with Jakim, believes mosques can be used for "total treatment".

"The use of methadone is only one part of treating drug addicts because we also have to look at the patient's spiritual, psychological and psychosocial aspects," he said.

The patients are not always well-received. Some who turn up at the Ar Rahman mosque face being stigmatized by the community and by the mosque officials themselves.

"People always say that drug addicts are associated with crime, and ask why the clinic is there. They think mosques are only for 'good' people," said Ghaffar.

The treatment worked for Feisal, who first tried heroin when he was 15. The 48-year-old father of four is now a street musician playing in Kuala Lumpur's popular tourists locations.

His vicious cycle only eased when he enrolled in a government methadone clinic six years ago, and later was among 50 patients selected for the Ar Rahman program.

"I prefer to come here because I feel closer to God. I feel cleansed," he said.

"It's different having treatment in the mosque compared to normal clinics. Here, we can't lie, because God is watching."