Arab countries argue that Islamic practices protect them from HIV. How true is this?by Shereen El Feki / June 25, 2006 / Leave a comment
When my father was growing up in Cairo in the 1940s, he got hooked on Sherlock Holmes—thanks to monthly instalments of Reader’s Digest. One of his favourite exchanges was the famous “curious incident of the dog in the night-time” from “Silver Blaze.” The dog, of course, did nothing, which was what was so curious.
I was reminded of my father and Holmes when looking at statistics on the global Aids epidemic. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the discovery of HIV, the virus which causes Aids. According to UNAids, there are an estimated 40m people infected with HIV around the world, and almost 3m died of Aids last year. Epidemics on this scale transcend medicine, spilling over into international politics and economics. At the end of May, the UN will hold a special assembly on Aids, dissecting progress to date and pondering what sort of prescription will halt the spread of the disease by 2015—one of its millennium development goals.
In a world awash with HIV, there is, however, the curious incident of the middle east, which seems strangely untouched by the disease. According to UNAids, there are more than 400,000 people living with HIV in the middle east and north Africa—0.2 per cent of the population. But compare that to south of the Sahara, where, on average, 6 per cent of the population—around 25m people—are infected with HIV.
So what is going on? Are Arabs somehow immune to Aids? Many in the region think so. They argue that Aids will never be an Arab problem because Islam takes a hard line on practices which spread the virus—homosexuality, prostitution, intravenous drug use. And when Aids does rear its head at home, they tend to blame foreigners for it—most famously in Libya, which in 2004 sentenced six Bulgarian and Palestinian healthcare workers to death for allegedly infecting more than 400 children at a hospital in Benghazi. (The sentences have since been overturned, and the foreigners face retrial.)
The notion that religion or culture can serve as a vaccine against Aids is not unique to the Arab world. There are plenty of other countries—India and China among them—which once argued that their culture and traditional values could protect them from Aids—and which now find themselves struggling with the epidemic. Nor are Islamic societies uniquely protected—just look at Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, where infection rates have soared in…