It’s not Islam, it’s weed

I’ve always thought that Peter Hitchens is only bonkers on the subject of Russia, while his other commentary is usually sound.

But his analysis of the root cause of Islamic terrorism shows he isn’t willing to content himself with just one mania. Now his other hobby horse, marijuana, has bucked violently and thrown him off.

“First,” he writes, “we have absolutely no evidence that the Westminster murders originated with Islamic State.” True. However, Islamic terrorism doesn’t have to originate with Islamic State to be Islamic. It may simply be inspired by Islam. Nor is ISIS the only Muslim terrorist group.

Islamic State didn’t exist in 2001, which didn’t prevent Muslims from flying large planes into tall buildings, nor in 2005, when Muslims blew up London buses and underground trains. In effect, Hitchens is repeating, if not in so many words, the inane statements uttered by Blair, Bush, Cameron and now May, who all deny any link between terrorism and Islam.

Then comes a contortionist pat on his own back: “As I have pointed out so many times before, many of these actions are committed by criminal misfits with long histories of theft, petty violence and drug abuse.”

We should thank Hitchens for this oft-repeated penetrating insight. Here we were, thinking that chaps who strap explosive belts to their bodies are all law-abiding, non-violent gentlemen who limit their intake of intoxicants to the odd sherry before supper.

Now we stand corrected: they’re misfits. However, why is it that it’s specifically Muslim misfits who do all those nasty things? A close friend of mine, a prison doctor, spent years working with criminal misfits who all abused drugs. However, according to him, they didn’t necessarily seek short-term employment as suicide bombers.

Hitchens doesn’t restrict himself to just one insight. He goes on to inform us that “cannabis is linked to long-term, lingering mental illness.” Yet authorities obsessed with the Islamic link to terrorism “are almost totally uninterested in the amazingly strong correlation between mind-altering drugs and crazed violence.”

This negligence is the fault of “sympathisers with drug legalisation” or “dogmatic neoconservatives” whose livelihood depends on “exaggerating the genuine but limited Islamist threat”. (Islamist, as opposed to Islamic, threat is indeed limited.)

Now I belong to neither of those pernicious groups. Yet one doesn’t have to be a neocon to observe that just about all current terrorist acts are committed by people who scream ‘Allahu akbar!’, not ‘Legalise weed!’. Some of those acts, such as 9/11, require the kind of meticulous planning that would be beyond drugged up zombies.

I happen to agree with Hitchens on the subject of drug legalisation, but not because the odd spliff makes a chap blow himself up on a crowded bus. The argument has to be more nuanced than he seems to be able to put together.

Mind-altering drugs aren’t immoral in se. Drug use in Britain was unrestricted until the 1868 Pharmacy Act and uncriminalised until the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act, and one can’t seriously believe that what was moral in 1919 suddenly became a sin in 1920. The outer edge of the moral argument reaches only as far as malum prohibitum, which puts dropping acid into the same category as dropping a seat belt.

One is on equally shaky grounds with a utilitarian argument. Taken in moderation, drugs are no more objectionable than alcohol. Taken in excess, some drugs can indeed have undesirable social consequences, but anyone who has ever been attacked by a drunk will agree that weed isn’t unique in that respect.

Hitchens has the causality all wrong. People don’t blow themselves up because they smoke pot. They’re more likely to smoke pot to overcome the fear of blowing themselves up. Cannabis is the Muslim version of Dutch courage.

This isn’t the first time in history that drugs have been used that way. For example, the Viking berserks gave rise to a good English word by munching magic mushrooms before battle, the Saracens went on cannabis-fuelled suicide missions behind the Crusaders’ lines, and Soviet soldiers charged tanks with bayonets under the influence of ethanol.

Drugs have some bad effects, but one can’t build a rational argument on such a shaky foundation. There’s no proof that moderate use of drugs is harmful – and immoderate use of anything, from tap water to tofu, can kill you.

To sum up, the rational case against legalising drugs is weak, and bits of anecdotal evidence won’t make it stronger. A case does exist, but it’s cultural and existential.

Drug taking, whether it’s a joint passed around by youths sitting on the floor or a line of coke cut with a razor blade on a marble top, is a ritual. And any ritual is a semiotic system – not a philosophy but a way of communicating one.

So what do these rituals, as distinct from drugs qua drugs, communicate? Why, they transmit the signals of sex-drugs-and-rock‘n roll modernity, a disease even more communicative than bad taste. And in doing so, they reflect many other dynamics involved in the collapse of our civilisation.

A relativist, empiricist society preaches that absolute truth isn’t only unknowable but nonexistent, and one can discover puny half-truths by experimentation – so why not addle one’s brain with drugs?

A youth is taught that his own self is uniquely important – so why not give it a boost?

A self-indulgent girl grows up never having encountered real beauty, be that art or religion – so why not create a surrogate?

As their senses rival their minds for hopeless ignorance, the modern lot feel not happy but high, not sad but depressed – so why not use drugs? Unskilled in semantics, they have to use semiotics to scream defiance, to spit in the face of the moribund beauty they despise.

Drugs have not always had this hidden semiotic agenda. But semiotics change with age, and what was meat for Messrs Coleridge or Conan Doyle is poison for us.

Thus Hitchens’s campaign against legalisation is commendable. But his crazy attempts to link the unlinkable – cannabis and Islamic terrorism – make one wonder what he himself is on. I wouldn’t mind having some of it.

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