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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

A jihad against Aids

Campaigners in Kashmir, desperate to stop the disease spreading, are enlisting the unlikely services of conservative holy men

Amrit Dhillon
Thursday May 16, 2002
The Guardian

If the best vehicle for educating a Muslim population about Aids is one that carries authority, enjoys mass reach and possesses the power to convince, who better than the person who leads prayers at a mosque? Particularly in a predominantly Muslim region such as the Kashmir Valley?

That, at least, is the thinking behind the latest campaign to stop Aids spreading in this part of India. Imams are being enlisted because every Friday they preach to a group of captive and receptive Muslim males. Before prayers, they deliver the khutba, or sermon, during which, in addition to religious topics, they may choose to educate their congregations on education, civic sense, hygiene or health.

"When a polio vaccination programme is going on, for example, imams often use the khutba to remind people to get their children vaccinated," says Kamal Faruqi of the Muslim personal law board in New Delhi. "The turnout is higher than it would be otherwise. If this platform is used for spreading Aids information, it could be really effective."


Aids campaigners in Kashmir are hoping that imams preaching the need for sexual restraint and the use of condoms will be more effective than leafleting or radio and television campaigns have been so far in Kashmir's deeply conservative society. The views of Sayeed Agha, a teenager in Srinagar, are typical. He says he has never discussed the topic of safe sex with his parents. "They would think I was being disrespectful."

Although the Kashmir Valley has one of the lowest rates of Aids in India, the latest figures from the National aids control organisation (Naco) suggest that the number of HIV-positive cases has increased by 66% in the past four years. A UN Aids report puts India's HIV population at 4.1 million, the largest in the world after South Africa. Experts believe that the epidemic could shatter the country. But so far, the government has been in stubborn denial, with some officials even claiming that the UN figures are "part of a western conspiracy to trap India into dependence on multi- nationals for anti-Aids drugs".

What frightens Aids campaigners is the widespread ignorance, a fact that emerged during the first "orientation" workshop held last month in Srinagar for 25 imams chosen to lead the project. "The aim of the workshop was to raise their level knowledge about the virus, ethical issues, and the impact it is having on human lives," says Ashok Parmar, the project director at the Jammu & Kashmir Aids control society. "Many of them were shocked at the tragedies unfolding every day here. In fact, one of the younger imams turned angrily to an older imam sitting next to him and said 'if things have got to this stage, it's because you lot have kept quiet about it'. The whole thing was a kind of wake-up call for them."

The plan to enlist imams has been inspired by a hugely successful experiment in Africa. It involved motivating and training imams in Uganda, Senegal and Ghana who then went to their mosques and told people how to avoid getting Aids; in Uganda, it was called the "Jihad Against Aids". The model, hailed by the UN, is now inspiring other countries with large Muslim populations to devise a specifically Islamic approach to Aids prevention that combines health information with Koranic teachings proscribing adultery and pre-marital sex.

The first training workshop for Kashmiri imams will be held next month. "There is really so much in the Koran that imams could use to buttress the whole Aids message," says Sayeeda Hameed, of the Muslim women's forum. "The only drawback is that it leaves out women, who are not allowed to pray in mosques, but they can be reached in other ways. And if men become aware, that's half the problem solved anyway."

But by far the most contentious issue, both in Africa and in Kashmir, is the use of condoms. Imams fear that recommending them could promote sex outside marriage. It took Aids project leaders in Africa a year to convince imams that the condom was only being promoted after the failure of the first two lines of protection - abstaining from sex and having sex only within marriage. "Don't forget that human beings have weaknesses," Islamic leaders were told. Needless to say, the message was ignored.

Then campaigners tried another tactic, pointing out that knowledge of condoms did not imply that they would be used irresponsibly. After all, they argued, Muslims know all about alcohol but it doesn't mean they run around guzzling the stuff. This seemed to do the trick. After much theological angst, Islamic leaders consented to let imams promote condom use. In Kash mir, meanwhile, Parmar and his colleagues will have to wait to see what stand the imams take.


Dr Mohammed Shaukat, who works with Naco, foresees no major problem although he acknowledges that Islamic thought on condoms varies considerably. "It will look very odd if someone who has been thundering against the use of condoms, even for family planning, suddenly says that the Aids threat makes using them all right, so the imams will have to take the masses with them gradually. But I don't see why it should be a problem, particularly if he warns them that condoms are not a licence for licentiousness."

Another vital message the imams will be expected to put across is the need for humane behaviour towards those who are HIV-positive. Parmar says imams will be urged to teach compassion and to condemn the tendency to stigmatise. Cruelty, bred of fear and ignorance, is widespread in India, from the cities to remote villages. When Govind Singh, a labourer who contracted the virus in Bombay, returned to his village in Uttar Pradesh last year members of his own family and almost the entire fear-crazed population dragged him into a gote (an enclosure where cows and goats are kept) and locked him up. His wife and children threw chapattis to Singh. In the last stages, he was usually lying on the floor, unable to stand or wash. He died a few weeks later.

Mufti Nazir Ahmed, a religious scholar in Kashmir who has written a booklet on Islam and Aids, conducted the first workshop and spoke at length about the human suffering. "I told them about a migrant labourer who caught the virus from a prostitute and came back and infected his wife. When he found out about his wife, he tried to kill her, their two children and himself with poison. They died but he survived. These are the tragic stories that need to be exposed."

Kashmir is a delicate area for Aids campaigners for another reason, too. Muslim separatists have been fighting for secession from India for years. Extremist groups have proliferated and the atmosphere is volatile. It would be very easy for a Muslim fanatic to portray the way Islam can be a tool in the war against Aids as another mark of its "superiority" to other faiths. For example, one Muslim journalist who attended the workshop went away and wrote an ecstatic report on "how only Islam, because of its power and majesty, can be effective against this scourge".

Even Mufti Nazir Ahmed, in his booklet on Islam and Aids, talks of how 15 centuries earlier, the prophet had predicted the "spread of a terrible and hitherto unknown disease as a result of people indulging in obscene practices".

So some things about the project need to be watched, a point conceded by Parmar and his colleagues who say it will be monitored closely. As one local government official said: "We've got enough problems here without turning the fight against Aids into an explosive issue."

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002