There are currently 34 million people who are infected with the AIDS virus, while 95 percent of them reside in the world's poorest regions, mainly Sub-Saharan Africa. In the worst hit African countries, life expectancy is predicted to dwindle to 29 years. This will result mainly from untimely deaths caused by AIDS.
Many more shocking facts and figures were laid open before the 13th International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa, in early July. As the high profile conference which was held in Africa for the first time came to an end on July 14, poor countries were still left helpless in the midst of a raging crisis. Meanwhile, richer nations, where AIDS management is reaching astounding achievements, still have much to worry about.
But as both the rich and poor are admitting the problems of the catastrophic disease, the Muslim world seems largely careless regarding the danger of the epidemic, as if it is shielded by a magic spell or worse, by denial.
In his speech before the eighth International Bioethics Symposium: Global Concern on AIDS, held in Tokyo in the late 1990's, Malaysian scholar Dr. Munawar Anees stated, "the absence of awareness of AIDS in the Muslim world is understandable. It is a logical conclusion that follows the sanctimonious denial of, or wishful thinking about AIDS." Such "wishful thinking" is certainly a leading factor in the unreported growth of the AIDS epidemic in the Muslim world, a fact that can never be proven without a governmental change of attitude toward AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Because many still hold fast to religious tenets that prohibit sexual relations outside of marriage, it is not likely the AIDS epidemic will reach proportions as in Africa and Europe. Yet arguing that the Muslim world is largely AIDS free, or that the epidemic has little presence among Muslims is a mere fantasy, which could lead to disaster.
Most Muslim countries fall into the gap of the impoverished half of the world, a reality that is known to be a producer of many grievous phenomena. Poverty in many parts of the world lays the foundation for extremely dangerous social illnesses such as prostitution, drug addiction and others. Such problems constitute a golden opportunity for AIDS to strike.
Millions of Muslims live, torn between two geographical entities, between the United States and The Middle East, or between South East Asia, Europe and elsewhere. As expected, not every Muslim immigrant to the West upholds his or her highly regarded principals of total abstinence before and in-between marriages. Among the large number of returning Muslim immigrants, students and visitors to their birth places, where most of them often prefer to find a partner, AIDS lurks, and slowly infiltrates Muslim societies. Consequently, entire families could be infected by the HIV virus without knowing the basics of the disease or even being aware of the infection.
In other cases, AIDS enters the Muslim world in a much more tragic way--through mass rapes. Dare we forget the mass rape of thousands of Muslim women, young girls and even boys in Bosnia and Kosovo. Similar cases are also reported in the ongoing Chechen strife with Russia.
No one is fully protected from the wrath of AIDS, including Muslim nations. The increasing fatalities as a result of the epidemic however, appear little relevant to most Muslim governments. Most Muslim media reported on the advancing disease throughout the South African conference, as if it only takes place "there" and never "here".
The unjustifiable failure to address the AIDS problem in the Muslim world can hardly be separated from other failures to address many consequential social and political problems and phenomena that systematically devastate the lives of many people. Using religious tradition to "taboo" such issues is pure hypocrisy, considering the Islamic traditions' openness and willingness to discuss every matter in life.
AIDS kills, not only prostitutes, homosexuals and drug users, but also children and other victims who were innocently infected by a disease, which many know nothing about. Muslims must also join in the quest for understanding and controlling AIDS before reality hits hard and late, for hiding ones head in the sand is no longer a means of salvation.
(Ramzy Baroud is a freelance journalist living in Seattle, Washington. He is a regular columnist for iviews.com.)