The United Nations Joint Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates that since the start of the global HIV pandemic around 29.4 million people have been infected with HIV. Although many Muslim countries claim that they have not been affected by HIV, this is not true. HIV infections have been reported in every single Muslim country. According to UNAIDS there are an estimated 300 000 people living with HIV in North Africa and the Middle East. Anyone can become infected by HIV, including Muslims.
Muslim counties refuse to monitor their Aids/HIV statistics because the disease is a stigma in the Islamic world and associated with gay relations. This in-spite the fact that Muslims who are living in areas where medical data is collected, have an alarming number and increase in HIV while no measures are taken to contain and reduce the numbers. Muslims afflicted with HIV will often refuse to attend medical exams or seek medical care for the disease.
HIV/AIDS as a Religious Issue – the Cairo Declaration and Beyond
On December 8, 2012, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) hosted a Red Gala Dinner at the Fairmont Hotel in Cairo, Egypt to raise awareness about the virus and how it affects the lives of over three hundred thousand people across the Arab world.
The by-invitation-only event featured high-profile celebrity attendees, including satirical television show host Bassem Youssef, and focused on the theme of supporting women and children affected by HIV.
The event showcased items made by local designers and even featured artisanal cupcakes from a trendy Cairo-based bakery. These items were later auctioned off and the proceeds were donated to Alexandra-based NGO, Friends of Life, which aims to provide comprehensive support to people living with HIV.
The gala fundraiser was covered by local media and may soon be featured in a photo spread in a prominent regional fashion magazine.
Missing from the evening’s programming, however, were stories about those communities most vulnerable to the virus, as well as discussion of the on-going cultural and religious debates happening at a global and regional-level surrounding HIV/AIDS.
In late 2004, Muslim and Christian religious leaders from around the Arab world gathered in Cairo at the Regional Religious Leaders Colloquium, which included attendees like the Egyptian theologian, Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Goma’a, and the former Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Mohamed Sayed Tantawy.
The meeting resulted in high-level Arab religious leaders signing the Cairo Declaration of Religious Leaders in the Arab States in Response to the HIV/AIDS Epidemic (Cairo Declaration), which encourages a faith-based approach to both HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
While reiterating that both abstinence and faithfulness should be the cornerstone of prevention efforts, the declaration places emphasis on out reach to vulnerable groups, particularly IDUs, MSM, and FSWs.
The signing of this document was a welcomed development. Too often, religious scholars have chosen to focus on the supposed immorality of those individuals infected with HIV. One prominent and representative example of this can be found in the work of the Sudanese-born Islamic thinker and Professor at the International Islamic University, Malik Badri.
In a pamphlet based on lectures held during the late 1990s, The AIDS Dilemma: A Progeny of Modernity, Badri decries AIDS as a result of the modern sexual revolution, which facilitated the spread of the disease in the American homosexual and drug-using communities.
By 2009, however, Badri had adopted a less accusatory tone and focused instead on promoting an Islamic HIV/AIDS prevention model. Indeed, a religious trend seems to be emerging, one that focuses on compassion instead of condemnation.
Now living in Malaysia, a prolific Afghan scholar of Islamic law, Mohammed Hashim Kamali,** has promoted this theory of compassion in examining issues associated with HIV/AIDS. While he does not advocate a particular program for treatment or prevention or comment on whether or not condoms should be utilized, he does focus on the need to eliminate prejudice and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
Kamali is not alone in supporting a more compassionate Islamic approach to the disease. Positive Muslims, a South African-based NGO, is one example of a faith-based organization using religiously grounded initiatives to combat stigma and discrimination. Founded in 2000, Positive Muslims works to support South African Muslims living with HIV/AIDS, to increase awareness of the disease, and to encourage compassion among the entire Muslim community for those suffering from the emotional and physical effects of HIV.
In July 2012, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law released Risks, Rights, and Health, a report that provides evidence-based analysis on the ways in which the law has both mitigated and exacerbated the spread of HIV.
The report also calls on governments to outlaw all forms of discrimination, repeal punitive laws, and reform ineffective approaches to drug-use and intellectual property regimes, among others.
The Commission’s report should be taken as a frank admission that when it comes to HIV/AIDS, faith and religion matter. Throughout the report, the word sharia appears roughly fifteen times. Additionally, there is an abundance of references to religion, religious figures, and cultural traditions.
Whether espousing compassion for the sick or condemning perceived immoral behavior, religion has an intimate relationship with HIV/AIDS patients, particularly those living in Muslim communities. Civil society actors must not forget to engage with religious figures and consider the ways in which religion impacts those groups most susceptible to the disease.
*Dominic T. Bocci is Muftah’s Religion Editor and currently works at a foreign policy think-tank.
** This article was updated on January 16, 2013 to correct for the nationality of Mohammed Hashim Kamali. The article originally described Mr. Kamali as being of Indonesian origin.