The Cultural & Religious Debates on HIV/AIDS in the Muslim World

Published: January 15, 2013

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.

This article is meant to encourage that conversation.

HIV/AIDS in the Muslim World – Scholarship and the “Facts”

Until recently, studies focusing on the intersection between HIV/AIDS and Muslims or Muslim-majority countries have been scarce.

Scholarship from the 1980s and 1990s focused on HIV-infection rates in Africa and examined Muslims as a statistical demographic group, if at all. Those articles that did touch on the Muslim world examined the fact that the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the Middle East was dramatically lower than other parts of the globe, leaving one author to ponder in 1997, “Will Egypt Escape the AIDS Epidemic?”

It was not until much later that discourses on the relationship between religion and growing public health concerns began to emerge, producing enduring stereotypes. Religious pamphlets distributed throughout the Middle East and abroad detailed the writings of Muslim scholars, who portrayed HIV/AIDS as an illness pertaining to European and American homosexuals and who characterized HIV as a non-Muslim disease.

Reflecting on the lower-rates of infection in the Muslim world, American academics began to posit whether, in fact, Islamic regulations on sexuality, usage of intoxicants, and male circumcision contributed to a certain degree of immunity from HIV transmission for the Muslim community.

Only within the past two years have comprehensive scientific studies focusing on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region been published, attempting to fill the widely acknowledged knowledge and data-gap in the HIV/AIDS world map.

In 2010, the World Bank released Characterizing the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa:  Time for Strategic Action, a report highlighting data collected from twenty-three Muslim-majority countries.

This groundbreaking work concludes that action must be taken by governments in the MENA-region to prevent the emergence of a widespread HIV epidemic. As reflected in the report, HIV infections exist in every country in the region with governments failing to control the virus’s spread.

As scholars and public health practitioners have warned, if no increased data-collection, prevention campaigns, or treatment programs are implemented, epidemic-level HIV outbreaks will likely occur among injecting drug users (IDUs), men who have sex with men (MSM), and female sex workers (FSMs) throughout the region.

Today researchers are asking, once again, why it is that Muslim communities appear to have lower rates of infection. Some recent articles have gone so far as to conclude that rates are lower in developing Muslim-majority countries because Muslims are less likely than Christians and Jews to have premarital sex.

While recognizing the influence of culture and religion on sexual and reproductive health, studies such as these add little value to discourses on Islam and run the risk of characterizing the religion as a universally standardized set of practices. To the contrary, Muslims throughout the world exhibit differences in both the practice and understanding of the teachings of Islam.

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