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                                                    RELIGIO-MORAL DIMENSIONS OF THE HIV/AIDS PANDEMIC


                                                                                 By Dr. Malik S. Khan

A Publication of Motamar at the United Nations by

the International Islamic Council for Da`wa and Relief


            I offer my humble appreciation to Allah for providing me the opportunity to present my thoughts on the "Religio-Moral Dimensions of the HIV/AIDS Pandemic."  In this connection, I must at the outset point out that while AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) and its precursor, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) can be spread by means such as carelessness by the caretakers of the HIV-positive and AIDS patients of their bodily fluids, reuse of infected syringes, etc., the most common cause of transmission of HIV is having multiple sexual partners, which is a socio-moral phenomenon.  Therefore, as the spread of the disease largely stems from social causes, so does its suppression quintessentially reside in human behavior.

            Indeed, the pandemic is a new calamity befalling the human population.  Naturally, it is not present in all individuals.  The proportion of those infected whose condition progresses from HIV to AIDS varies widely from community to community (1 – 5%), often remaining dormant for months or years, and depending on factors such as the ability of the patient to receive medicine, and the commitment to take it every day, while the disease is still dormant, and the nourishment provided by the patient's diet.  The virus goes into the bloodstream and depletes the body's nutrients, hormones, and ability to resist diseases.  Once AIDS has been diagnosed, with the depleted immune system susceptible to a variety of diseases (including those that rarely strike the healthy), the condition is considered fatal.

            Yet the greater danger comes from transmission of the affliction from the infected individuals to the uninfected ones through interjection of semen or blood.  Other bodily fluids (e.g. saliva, tears, milk, tissue) do not carry infection.  Similarly, it does not spread by casual contact such as touching, hugging, kissing, breathing, or sharing utensils.  Accordingly, one of the major methods of transmission is sexual contact.  Unprotected sex and having it with multiple partners greatly increases the chance of contracting the disease and further spreading it.  The innocent victim is the partner, who committed no sin, but suffers because the other has brought the disease home.  The main risk groups in this category are homosexual or bisexual men and heterosexual contacts of infected persons, as well as children of tainted women.  The other debased means is the transfusion of blood.  Unscreened, contaminated blood passes the infection to the recipient.  As blood is routinely screened in hospitals, the victims of this method of transmission tend to be needle-sharing drug addicts.

            Some of the common symptoms of AIDS are:  depression, blisters, herpes, skin problems, dry cough, lymph node swelling, cold sweats in the night, diarrhea, and unusual infections.  The symptom most directly responsible for death by AIDS is weight loss, which may be as severe as 10kg in a week.  When the human body has wasted to 55% of its normal weight, the body dies.

            The AIDS victims suffer not only from the disease, they also suffer socially and become the untouchables in the communities.  Nobody wants to live with them or wants them to live in their neighborhood.  The family members of those who are diagnosed with AIDS or who have died from it are discriminated against, and this stigma makes people suffer all the more.  This, paradoxically, contributes to the spread of AIDS by encouraging a mentality where a person would potentially endanger the life of a new or second sexual partner rather than undergo HIV testing with its perceived risk of losing one's job or being outcast by one's family and community.

            By far, the permissive, perverted, and promiscuous societies are the breeding grounds of these vices.  Sensualism, alcoholism, intoxication, gambling, drug abuse, homosexuality, promiscuity, prostitution, sodomy, and provocative or unnatural indulgences directly or indirectly lead to the HIV/AIDS track.  Moreover, as any addiction affects the body, brain, and genes, impairing the subject's biological, intellectual, psychological, and social defenses, these impulses are carried over to his offspring, thereby further intensifying the dangers of the pandemic.

            Yet, some people eagerly advocate legalization of these virulences either in the name of freedom or in the guise of socialization, often attracting the children or youth to them.  Once on such a collision course, disaster is eventually the outcome, with no point of return.

            Then, to ignite these tendencies, the media and business play equally destructive roles.  Allowing and exciting imageries have become the leitmotif of communication and advertising.  To begin with, there are presently 400,000 sex websites, visited by sixty million viewers daily.  In broadcasting events or introducing products, intoxicants (tobacco, alcohol), pleasure (pulsating music, throbbing dance), and voluptuosity (premature indulgence, premarital sex) are projected as manly and macho manifestations.  Promoted as good-time experiences and considered as attributes of free society, appearing as glamorous and sociable, they are taken as harmless fun and zestful amusement.  This, in the absence of prohibition or social disapproval, it is common for people to become enslaved to lower desires and become alcoholics, gamblers, adulterers, drug addicts, or other substance abusers.  Indeed, it is a shameful illusion.  Today throughout the modern world tobacco, alcohol and drug paraphernalia are easily available to minors.  People who give over their minds to alcohol and mild-altering drugs can easily become victims of AIDS.

            This presents a horrifying specter of capricious behavior toward life and in particular toward sexual attitudes.  A grave situation prevails, especially in sub-Saharan and Western Africa, where more than 75 percent of youth are sexually active.  In the United States, before graduating from high school, many youth have had several sexual partners.  The shocking news also tells us that new strains of diseases have developed resistance to antibiotics.

            As a result, the number of people afflicted with HIV continues to rise in all parts of the world.  In 2003, 38 million affectees were living with the virus, which included 36 million adults, of whom 17 million were women, and 2 million children.  Africa has 14% of the world's population, but almost two-thirds of all adults are infected with HIV.  The epidemic is also spreading rapidly in Asia and Eastern Europe, accounting respectively for 7.4 and 1.3 million persons.  Over 2 million people are languishing with HIV in Latin America and the Caribbean.

            There is a wide diversity in prevalence of affliction among regions and countries.  In South Africa, the worst affected area in the world, the ascendancy is 23 percent of the adult populace.  The next highest concentration is in the Caribbean, estimating about 2.3 percent.  Steep increases have also been observed in some Asian and East European nations.  In the more developed regions of Western Europe, North American and Australasia, the regnancy is about 0.5 percent.

            The number of deaths caused by AIDS has mounted steadily over the years.  More than 20 million people have expired since the disease was first diagnosed in 1981.  Of the 3 million deaths due to AIDS in 2003, more than 2 million occurred in Africa, 0.5 million in Asia, 84,000 in Latin America and the Caribbean, and some 70,000 in the industrialized world (i.e., Western Europe, North America, Australasia).

            The number of children orphaned by the disease is estimated at 15 million, Africa being the most affected continent, 12 million souls having lost one or both parents.  There are additional 3 million orphans in other parts of the globe.  On the whole, it is predicted that by the year 2020, the volume of AIDS orphans could swell to more than 18 million.  Most of them growing up in poverty, faced with increased risk of violence, they would be exposed to bitter exploitation and abuse.

            Response to these emergencies has equally been widespread, both nationally and internationally, and for both prevention and cure.  Nationally, governmental initiatives have been characterized by comprehensive policies and programs in many countries.  Forthright national leadership, combined with public awareness and intensive prevention efforts, has resulted in some notable successes.  Concern over HIV/AIDS has ranked high on the population policy agenda of most countries.  Governments are pursuing multi-pronged strategies to combat the problem, in partnership with and succor of civil society, focusing on:

1.      Legislation (non-discrimination, non-stigmatization)

2.      Policy (aggressive promotion)

3.      Execution (effective implementation)

4.      Education (public awareness, information, publicity)

5.      Communication (public relations, confidence-building, assistance)

6.      Institutionalization (networking, support groups, coordinating linkages, organizational provisions)

7.      Prevention (counseling, testing, condom use, blood screening, modification of sexual behavior); and

8.      Treatment (antiretroviral facilities).

While these exertions have frequently been fragmented and narrow, they have over the time been strengthened, promising better services in the coming days.  In particular, whereas antiretroviral remedy has significantly prolonged the life and reduced the suffering of AIDS victims, access thereto has remained low owing chiefly to high costs.

Internationally too, the pandemic has prompted an unprecedented array of global, regional, national, and local responses.  Beginning in 1994, the Economic and Social Council has, inter alia, established the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) to launch and support a coordinated action from the United Nations system as a whole.  The urgency of concerted schemata was organized by the United Nations Millennium Declaration (2000), which noted the resolve of the Members to halt and reverse the spread of the epidemic by the year 2015.  This was reiterated in the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS adopted by the General Assembly (2001), which acknowledged the preventive measures as the mainstays to meet the challenges posed.  Additional resources were being brought to bear by the Global Fund & Fight AIDS, among other things, created by the General Assembly (2002).  Further, in view of the devastating toll of the epidemic in Africa, the UN Secretary-General established the Commission on HIV/AIDS and Governance in Africa (2003) to make recommendations for eradicating the menace.  Most recently, the High-Level Meeting to review the achievement of the goals set out in the Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS (2005) afforded an opportunity for the international community to take stock of its efforts co counter the disease.  The Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, along with its other allied activities, monitors trends and policies related to HIV/AIDS and provides throughout the world up-to-date, accurate and scientifically objective information thereon.  Also, as a constant reminder, May 16th has been recognized as the International Day of HIV/AIDS.  This helps promote the cause of alleviating the attached suffering.

However, while there have been many examples of success and progress, they have essentially represented stopgap solutions.  Indeed, the global response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic having fallen short of what was required, the dilemma of adequately tackling the problem still remains.  On the contrary, certain artificial means assumed in desperation (e.g. indiscriminate use of condoms) and in spite of their apparent benefits (e.g. avoidance of chance pregnancy) have had long-term detrimental consequences by encouragement of irresponsible behavior and encouraging moral degeneration in society (e.g., prevalence of adultery, which has its own ill effects).  Eventually, such practices increase rather than decrease the spread of the epidemic.

The reason has been the fundamental deficiency of the theories and policies adopted which, dwelling heavily on secular ingredients, lack the necessary spiritual contents that are the essence of straight society.  As all religions place prohibition on harmful conduct, it is religio-moral factors that motivate individuals to follow a righteous course away from vices, avoiding personal or social injury to anybody including themselves.  Consequently, despite all efforts otherwise, ignorance and rejection of the Divine Message will lead to perpetual damnation.  All the revealed religions (e.g., Judaism, Christianity, Islam) lay down clearly in their respective scriptures (e.g., Torah, Bible, Qur'an) the paths of pious life and graceful existence, providing guidance and showing signs, so as to ensure rewards here and hereafter.  Simultaneously, they enjoin to stay away from dereliction and not to go astray, warning against the chastisement that lies ahead for sinful and disobedient conduct.  In keeping with human dignity, they prescribe commendable aspects of character (e.g., truth, honesty, compassion, tolerance, respect, kindness, cleanliness, piety, sobriety) and enjoin to abhor detestable misdeeds (e.g., lies, theft, milling, intoxication, adultery, gambling, fornication, homosexuality, slavery).  Moreover, abuse of the human body, misuse of wealth, wastage of resources, and worship of the unworthy are forbidden.  Islam requires the mo'min (believer) to lead a pious life.  Making the Divine Dictates as the bases of creation, sustenance, and existence, it has ordained an upright pathway.  Walking on it promises all the beauties of health, prosperity, and happiness, while deviation therefrom eventuates to disease, misery, and sorrow.  As such, it has allowed only lawful living, eating, drinking and behaving.  At the same time it has prohibited leading of flagitious life, consumption of harmful substances, and displaying of culpable demeanor, which paralyze body, mind, and spirit.  In short, only in Godly way the beneficial and beautiful activities are sanctioned, while abusive and distinctive indulgences are estopped.  Indeed, where and when Islamic ideology prevailed, the society trod on a healthy and happy trail free from thorny and painful gait.

Surely, were the humans following the righteous course as explicitly provided by the Almighty through His apostles and had avoided the evil urges in their lives, they should have not fallen into such calamitous pit as HIV/AIDS.  While its scourge is still raging, being in a blind alley, they are behaving as helpless spectators.

Recourse for them, therefore, is to offer their sincere repentance on past fallacies, straighten their crooked ways, and assume the divinely prescribed style of life.  For this, they ought to follow the Holy Injunctions as revealed through His messengers.  Only subservience and obedience to the decrees of the Almighty (Who alone is the Creator and Sustainer of all that exists, is the Owner and Provider of everything, is All-Knowing and All-Powerful, and Who alone is worthy of praise and worship) will salvage humanity from the abject depths into which it has descended.  Those who ask Him will find Him with His Grace and Guidance to establish the lasting peace, bliss, and abundance.

Now, this is the duty of the utmost urgency falling upon all the religionists and specially the adherents of the three Abrahamic faiths (viz. Jews, Christians, Muslims) to commit themselves to work together as a team in finding answers to prevent, cure, eradicate, and safeguard against the epidemic.  For this, to achieve desirable results, systematic and sustained efforts shall be necessary.  Faith-based groups, toiling in unison in a coordinated fashion, will be able to bring about an environment conducive to physically and spiritually healthful behaviors.  In such a regimen, religio-moral values will prevail in the lives of the people, controlling, inter alia, their physico-material necessities.  While love of God and loyalty to His commandments shall promote this balance, His fear and wrath will guard them against their bumbling into lustful traps.  With spiritual elements as adduced, the society will be both celestially hale and corporeally hardy, self-regulating when the equilibrium is tilted.  So revitalized and invigorated, neither evil onslaughts will destroy its élan nor malignant threats shall ruin its substance, while projecting itself as a sound enterprise.

In this connection, three coordinated programs with different foci shall be simultaneously launched.  The first, short-term, will emphasize the cure and treatment of those already infected by HIV/AIDS.  Appropriate legislation and policies with adequate means of their implementation shall be advanced to provide the victims socio-emotional relief.  Further, in the same vein, support and comfort groups will be established in each affected community.  Possibilities of antiretroviral facilities shall likewise be expanded as much as possible.  Research and trial of other medicines for the alleviation and care of the disease shall equally be encouraged in the same spirit. 

The second, medium-term program will initiate a concerted preventive campaign.  Through education, publicity, and information, the public shall be made aware of the horrors of the pandemic and urged to follow the physico-morally sanctioned conduct (i.e., respect for the human body, consumption of clean foods, indulgence in licit sexual relationship) and avoidance of profane activities (e.g., drug abuse, gambling, fornication, prostitution, adultery).  For these purposes, provision of necessary public relations, information, publicity, literature, discussion, and counseling shall be stressed.  Facilities for safe medical practices (e.g., blood screening. sterile equipment) shall be broadly disseminated.  Similarly, adherence to cautious sexual contacts (e.g., medication, rhythm, condom) shall be urged, particularly lawful sexual relationships as necessary. 

The third, long-term, program shall focus on the reform of the social environment on spiritual grounds.  Interfaith congregations from all communities and creeds will join hands in a meaningful way and cooperative order, sharing their concern and resources, to cleanse the society of vices that have led and have the potential of leading to HIV/AIDS along with others.  Through their mutuality and sincerity, a vigorous social movement will be mounted, which could bring solace and salvation to the aching earth.  The evils underlying the pandemic thus fought out, giving birth to an upright community, this will ensure prevalence of a really peaceful, prosperous destiny for mankind.  Then and only then, humanity may consider itself safe from the plight of HIV/AIDS and safeguarded against future outbreaks.