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HIV/AIDS – No Room for Zealotry(s)

HIV/AIDS – No Room for Zealotry(s)
by Dr. Mazeni Alwi

Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” reminds us that even first-hand accounts can be unreliable.  People tend to embellish their versions of an event and hide inconvenient facts to make themselves look good and to persuade listeners onto their side as to who the heroes and villains are.  In that 1951 classic film, a simple woodcutter returning from a trial for rape and murder in feudal Japan to which he was witness took shelter from the pouring rain under the ruins of the Rashomon gate.  He despondently recounted to the other travellers how the people involved were less than honest in their testimonies- the thief accused of the crime, the raped woman and the spirit of the murdered husband who spoke through a temple medium.  But in the end, even the simple woodcutter whom the audience initially felt to be a truthful witness left important holes in his recounting of the event.

The second International Muslim Leaders’ Consultation on HIV/AIDS (IMLC II) conference on HIV/AIDS ended more than 2 weeks ago but the controversial paper by Dr. Amina Wadud and the verbal fracas that it provoked still animated the English press (“Clouded by obscurantism” by Rose Ismail and Aniza Damis, NST 25 May, and “Drawing Muslim leaders into fight against AIDS” by Aniza Damis, NST June 1 and “Urgent request for more charity among muslims” by Askiah Adam, the Star 25 May).

Divergence of positions between the “progressive” muslims and those of mainstream traditional persuasion is often thrown into sharp relief on issues that touch on gender and sexuality.  The debate not infrequently becomes emotive and the atmosphere highly charged, that the objective of the conference becomes lost in the confrontation.  In the various feature analyses that appeared in the English press, those who sought to broaden the fight against the AIDS/HIV pandemic beyond condoms-campaign to include religious moral values have been vilified as “obscurantists”, “opposers”, “resisters”, “retrogressives” etc by those who appropriated for themselves the term “progressive” and “liberal” muslims.  The “progressive” muslims quickly claimed the moral high horse by demonizing their opponents as consistently failing to show understanding and humanity towards AIDS sufferers and instead condemn and pass moral judgements on them.  They are obdurate and belligerent in their medieval views of women and sexuality.  In truth, there is a lot that muslim religious leaders in Malaysia need to learn about the nature of the AIDS pandemic, and how to treat AIDS sufferers with kindness and humanity, and be non judgemental of what people do in their private lives.  This failing on their part has been repetitiously highlighted and rather unfairly amplified in the various newspaper features. But then, this was perhaps the first time that they had such an exposure in the examining of complex social problems beyond the simple black and white of religious moral sanctions.  If the objective was to bring the mainstream ulama into a consultation to fight HIV/AIDS, then they should perhaps be treated with more respect and understanding.

The progressive muslims appeared to have gained a lot of sympathy from the English reading public as victims of the retrogressives’ moralizing and obscurantist attitude to sexuality and gender.  But does the press tell the whole truth?  Well, like the characters in “Rashomon”, every body tells the story the way they want people to hear it, and we all understand how the media works in this country.  While the Malay press may sometimes be overly critical of progressives like Sisters in Islam (SIS), in the English media it is the other way around.  They are the media darlings and their opponents are cast in the worst possible light, with no recourse for rebuttal or defense.

As expected, the President of Islamic Medical Association (IMA) Malaysia’s reply to Rose Ismail’s “Clouded by Obscurantism” which mercilessly demonized the mainstream “retrogressive” was never published, even though some of the specifically religious references could have been modified to suit a mixed, general readership.  Although I was not physically present at the conference, I kept in touch very closely with what went on as these events were recounted by colleagues blow by blow and updated daily on a net discussion group, and I have had the privilege going through all the papers that were presented (including the Dr. Wadud’s) and the newspaper clippings.

Given the media’s unbalanced accommodation towards the progressive muslims in their demonization of their nemesis, I think another perspective on the controversial event that took place during the conference is in order. Firstly, the public may have been led into thinking that all those who protested against Dr. Wadud’s paper are the typically conservative, patriarchal and chauvinistic ustaz and ulama who will not tolerate open discussions on gender and sexuality, who think of AIDS as God’s punishment on sexual permissiveness, and people who lack compassion and understanding towards AIDS sufferers.  Yes, certainly there were such people in attendance, and the culture shock was probably too much to handle for first-timers.  But is everybody who disagrees with the progressives necessarily an obscurantist zealot?  What has been largely hidden from the public by the progressives is that the most effective challenge to their agenda was mounted by articulate, muslim medical professionals.  They led a walkout when requests to debate the controversial paper was turned down, and they quickly organized press conferences and issued media statements, as anyone who wished to be heard but were unfairly silenced would have done. NST’s Rose Ismail commented that the dissenters were highly organized and able to come up with typed statements in a short time.  That is hardly surprising as the protest was, among others, led by Dr. Musa Mohd Nordin, President of Islamic Medical Association (IMA) of Malaysia.  The highly respected British trained paediatrician and neonatologist is indeed a very articulate person who, at the same time has a deep understanding of Islam. Some of us might recall his appearance on TV2’s “Point of View” some time ago, brilliantly fielding questions from the live audience on cloning and reproductive technology.  He is also a formidable debater at Malaysian Paediatric Association annual congresses.  Dr. Musa’s secretary is a British trained specialist in respiratory medicine.  The other dissenter is Dr. Ali Misyal, President of the Federation of Islamic Medical Association, a very warm, deeply religious, soft spoken and fatherly man whom I have the privilege of friendship for more than a decade.  For many years he was endocrinologist and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago.  He later went back to Jordan and founded the successful and highly regarded Islamic Hospital in Amman.  He has been to Malaysia several times at the invitation of IMA of Malaysia and the Ministry of Health to address various issues related to medical ethics and Islam.  The IMA Pakistan president is an eye surgeon well known for his medical charity work among the poor.  Then there were representatives of IMAs of United Kingdom, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and South Africa (well, AIDS is, for all its social and economic ramifications, a medical problem).  So there is hardly any parallel with the “Persatuan Ulama Malaysia (PUM) vs. Farish Noor” affair.  It is also not true that all the dissenters are chauvinistic obscurantists who completely lack compassion, understanding and humanity towards AIDS sufferers.  The IMA of Malaysia founded and runs “Rumah Solehah” in Cheras, a charitable half-way house that provides shelter, counseling, living skills and more importantly friendship and understanding to female AIDS sufferers in a society that is still deeply ignorant and prejudiced towards people like them.  Rumah Solehah today has expanded to embrace children with AIDS and has recently opened its business premises managed by the inmates themselves to sustain some measure of financial independence.

The conference’s advisory council and the various national IMAs have long recognized the pioneering effort of IMA of Uganda in AIDS education at community level though Imams working from their mosques.   The IMA Uganda in 1992 established the project “Family AIDS Education and Prevention through Imams”, which provided training to 850 imams and 6800 assistants, who then reached 100,000 families.

The progressives seemed to have deliberately potrayed the dissenters as uncaring religious moralists with a very distorted, narrow perception of the AIDS pandemic.  The muslim professionals well recognize that despite Islam’s moral strictures, in today’s modern multi-cultural society like Malaysia where sexual behaviour has become more liberal in contrast to homogeneous traditional muslim societies, AIDS transmission though extramarital sex or homosexuality and its spreads to family members is a real problem, and no one would argue that condoms and safe sex are effective measures in controlling the spread of the disease in high risk groups.

The dissenters’ protest over the Dr. Wadud’s paper had less to do about HIV-AIDS but that she had used the conference as platform to expound her revisionist feminist theology to denigrate mainstream muslim beliefs and ethics in a language that many consider vulgar outside the circles of university militant feminists.  The gist of Dr. Wadud’s paper “Vulnerabilities, HIV and AIDS” can be summed up as “that Islam and muslims exacerbate the spread of AIDS and that a traditional Islamic theological response can never cure AIDS” (page 3).  Well she is right about the last part because the Quran is never intended as a textbook of medicine or epidemiology, as she said “it will be impossible to refer to a specific Quranic verse or prophetic ahadith that can stand as the foundation of the technical skills, medical know how or research methods that could actually prove to bring about the solution” (page 14).  But she is irresponsibly wrong to say that “Islam and muslim exacerbates the spread of AIDS”.  This is the exact opposite to WHO statistics on the disease.  In the sub-Saharan nations, where as high as 1 in 5 people carry the virus, one can imagine the spectre of humanitarian catastrophe that is slowly unfolding, but muslim nations north of the Sahara on the same continent have among the lowest prevalence of HIV/AIDS.  Similarly, muslim minorities in the worst hit African nations have much lower rates of infection and experts have attributed this to the strict Islamic moral code as one of the major factors.  The vulnerability of 2 innocent subgroups, monogamous heterosexual women and their children become infected through their husbands and fathers was the whole edifice on which her attack on Islam and the Sharia was founded, drawing from western feminism on equating Islam with “the tyranny of patriarchal domination through heterosexuality, that for the most part, marriage in Shariah is marriage of the women’s domination” (page 6), and “the Quran itself as well as the Shariah is founded upon male sexual experience” (page 8).  In the context of AIDS, where a muslim wife is “… defined in terms of her benign unconditionally sexually available to her husband. Properly fulfilling this role of wife is fatal to some women…” (page 4).  While it is regrettable that in some traditional muslim societies oppression of women is a known phenomenon and that they may not be treated with dignity and respect, to attribute this directly to Islam’s holy book and prophetic traditions rather than to interpretational aberrations formed the crux of the delegates’ protest.  As part controversies have informed us, because of the way a religious text like the Quran is organized, it is easy to pick and choose certain verses while leaving out problematic ones and render them out of context to suit one’s ideas, wether it is liberation theology, neoliberal economic theory or in this case, feminist revisionism. At any rate, the Sharia with regards to family law is not such a closed entity.  Many jurists would argue that in a deadly transmissible disease like AIDS, women have the right to refuse conjugal relationships without safety precautions or even ask for divorce if they know that their husbands carry the HIV virus.  But things would not have snowballed into a protracted confrontation between the “progressives” and obscurantists” had the organizers allowed her paper to be debated, given its very controversial content.  But little did the progressives- dominated committee realize that they were facing a very articulate, literate and highly organized opponent. After much bargaining and arguments, the organizers relented to the dissenters’ request and an hour-long rebuttal forum was held the next day. Among others, Dr. Ali Mishal of Jordan gave a point by point rebuttal of Dr. Wadud’s paper while Ms. Nazlin Omar, a veteran AIDS campaigner from Kenya defended mainstream Islam from a feminine perspective against the feminist revisionism of Dr. Wadud.  According to colleagues, while the session’s atmosphere was not exactly congenial, it was not one where delegates stripped and skewered Dr. Wadud as some quarters claimed (this dispute can be settled by recourse to the session’s transcripts).

That brings us to the question as to the role that Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM) played, being co-organizer of IMCL II with Malaysia AIDS Council.  Have their representatives been sleeping-walking through the committee meetings or completely sidelined in its planning stage, given that Dr. Wadud’s 1999 book, “Quran and Women: Rereading the sacred text from a woman’s perspective” was declared as Haram by JAKIM in 2001 and its circulation banned by the Home Affairs Ministry?  One could not help feeling suspicious that the JAKIM with its suit-wearing ustaz, given its resources and clout as a government religious body has been taken for a ride.

It is also odd that for such a conference, a significant number of its invited speakers are known for their controversial and provocative views, such as Riffat Hassan and South Africans Ebrahim Moosa and Farid Esack, apart from Amina Wadud.  Farid Esack’s book “Quran, Liberation and Pluralism” (Oneworld, Oxford, 1997) borrowed heavily from Liberation Theology and proposed an iconoclastic revolution in Islamic methodology that attempts to make Quranic ethics conform to post-modern, late twentieth century western ideals.  He demands the abolition of gender – related dimensions of Quranic legislations which conflict with modern liberal values, and among these, advocated female imams in mosques.  In the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela had promised Muslim organizations that Muslim personal law would be introduced following the abolition of apartheid.  Esack however led a determined protest against this move which resulted in the authorities changing their mind.  But views like Esack’s and Wadud’s can only thrive in authoritarian societies where mainstream traditional discourse in the media is hounded, caricatured or demonized, where anti-tradition zealotry masquerades as liberalism.   In South Africa, Esack’s constituency for his hyperliberalism shrank rapidly since Mandela’s victory and his Call to Islam Society no longer even exists.  Similarly in Malaysia, the community would be more intellectually robust and confident had the media been more balanced allowed open discussion and debates on Dr. Wadud’s book.

Despite the bitter and fractious confrontations that lasted almost throughout the conference, at least the whole episode would serve as a sobering starting point for a more civilized discourse between the progressives and mainstream muslims in the future.  AIDS prevention is much more than condoms and safe-sex, especially in Malaysia where disease transmission through sex accounts for only 12.9% of cases (and homosexual sex, 0.9%).  The rest is through contaminated needles in IV drug users.  The AIDS pandemic is too great a problem that no one group can appropriate the cause against it and claim to have all the solutions.  Calling oneself progressive and those with differing views as obscurantists is hardly a good beginning for consultation, it is just the other face of zealotry.

Dr. Mazeni Alwi