It is hardly surprising that Muslims feel singled out
for unfavorable categorization by the West. AIDS is a global threat
which is ravaging Africa and threatens to do the same in populous
Asia. But a supposedly concerned U.S. think-tank has chosen to
present the threat in religious terms.
The report of the
National Bureau of Asian Research entitled "Behind the Veil of a
Public Health Crisis; HIV/AIDS in the Muslim world" proclaims that
this is a "heretofore largely unexplored problem" and demands that
"countries in the Muslim world tackle these problems now." It sees
the Muslim world as one and describes the spread of HIV among
Muslims as "the newest phase in the global pandemic."
Ironically, this attempt
to link Islam and AIDS denial has coincided with a UNAIDS meeting in
Kobe, Japan, focusing on the situation and outlook in Asia, which
clearly shows how the issue cuts across all religious and political
The statements by the
National Bureau of Asian Research may be partly true for much of the
Arab world, but are clearly dubious in respect of most of Islamic
Africa and nonsense when applied to Asia, where most Muslims live.
Sub-Saharan Africa's AIDS problem is hardly news. There is little to
suggest that the region's Muslims have, as a group, been responding
differently from its Christians either in terms of infection rates
Indeed, when it comes to
denial, largely Christian South Africa was far behind countries such
as Guinea and Tanzania, with predominant or significant Muslim
As for Asia's largest
predominantly Muslim country, Indonesia, it was slow to wake up to
its problem, but more because of government inertia than because of
unwillingness to talk about sexual issues, a subject on which few
Indonesians are coy.
Indonesia has made some
big strides in recognizing the problems and taking action - for
example in providing free needles for intravenous drug users, who
account for 40 percent of those infected.
Official denial was
always far more stubborn in democratic, secular India than in
formerly authoritarian Indonesia, and many of the worst stories of
severe social ostracism of HIV carriers also come from predominantly
Hindu India. Mostly Muslim Bangladesh has a better record than India
in addressing HIV, while Pakistan does not. Social and economic
factors, not religion, seems the major influence on both incidence
and reaction to HIV.
Nor does there seem to
be any link between religion and refusal to use condoms. Thailand
led the way in condom promotion and Cambodia has latterly been
successful in dramatically reducing HIV incidence in the 15-40 age
group through condoms.
But use in India lags
far behind - as it also does in authoritarian China. Vietnam, like
China, was another country to make a late start in recognizing the
threat from drug users as well as unprotected commercial sex and has
had only limited success so far in controlling the spread. As for
Myanmar, it remains largely in denial of AIDS as of most other
realities, despite having the highest infection rate in Southeast
Asia, a situation clearly linked to the abundance of heroin.
A few Muslim clerical
authorities have inveighed against providing condoms for
extramarital sex and needles for drug users. But only in the
Philippines has religion significantly impeded condom availability,
and in that case it was Catholicism.
Malaysia has a more
serious problem, but it seems to affect all races equally. Nor is
awareness lacking - the outspoken daughter of former Prime Minister
Mahathir bin Mohamad has been in charge of the awareness campaign
for some time.
Most Asian countries
still have far to go in combating the disease if the dire
predictions of UNAIDS are not to come about. Some 8.2 million people
(out of a global total of 25 million) in the region are infected.
The number is estimated to have risen by 1.2 million in 2004 and
could become an African-level pandemic.
everywhere in Asia have to put more into awareness, condom and
clean-needle campaigns. Individuals have to do much to adjust their
own behavior and societies to acknowledge that social ostracism can
only impede prevention by reinforcing denial. But to suggest that
Muslim countries and peoples present particular problems in tackling
AIDS appears not merely untrue but will do a grave disservice to the
campaign against its spread.