THE RELIGIOUS PERSPECTIVE
In the presentation of one of the more complex perspectives, the religious, you will find much more to be added. I think it is one of the more interesting perspectives that directly and indirectly involves so many people in the world, and it is hard to give a full overall view without writing a long essay about it. Consider it to be a teaser and use your own experience and knowledge when reflecting on the text.
The most common view among people around the world, I would believe, is that AIDS is God's punishment against an unhealthy way of living. Religion has always been influential when people around the world have faced difficulties like diseases and natural disasters. Last time it was the Black Death, but also earthquakes, tsunamis, drought and now AIDS are what makes us people realise our limitations and may choose to explain it through higher ruling powers, and what if it is so? Anyway, although I am not a stranger to the idea and respect people with different ideas, I do not want it to be like that. I want to believe that we can do something to stop further tragedies, and I also want to make people pay attention to that we get so much more "liberated" when we tackle issues of existential nature. How do we live in relationships with others? What openness do we have to other cultures, beliefs and practices, other views or perspectives of life? Is there an absolute truth, and in that case who holds it and who owns the right to express it? And maybe most of all; what effect does this have on other people, and not the least on people who live with HIV or AIDS?
Religious leaders have the potential and I strongly suggest a responsibility, to be part of the HIV prevention work. In many countries, religious leaders or groups have been excluded from prevention efforts because they were regarded as "in the way" or that they would become a “threat” towards the development of the prevention work, especially in connection to sexual-political issues. Nothing could be more wrong and counterproductive, I would say. Just look at the consequences brought about by the Catholic Church and its leader(s). Although the Pope, being the single individual in the world that has the greatest influence over more than one billion people, he still choose to deny these people the right to protect themselves by using condoms, regardless of motivation!
During one of my many trips for work in Somalia, a country where the vast majority are Muslims, I have been privileged to talk with a number of Imams. An incident in Garowe draws special attention to my interest. Imams confiscated a container sent to Somalia by UNICEF, within the Somali Global Fund project, and they brought the condoms out and put fire on them. I wanted to hear more about this and a meeting was arrangement by my good friend and colleague in the PEER Somali Project Mohamed Herzi. The supreme Imam in Galkayo, was glad and thanked me for wanting to hear his and the imams' views on the matter and on their views on HIV and AIDS,
since I was working on HIV prevention. He claimed that no one else from neither international nor local organisations had contacted them earlier about the matter or anything connected to HIV prevention!
Our conversation began by the Imam expressing that AIDS was a punishment from God for indecent behaviour, that condoms were prepared with HIV, which was the reasoning for the burning of the condoms, and that there were no homosexuals nor prostitutes in Somalia and that the United States of America had no person infected by this virus. During our dialogue, we begun to talk more and more about the fact that there are different practices existing in our societies, although if they are prohibited, or we do not want them to occur. I used the metaphor of the five blind men who met an elephant, and each of them grabbed different parts of the elephant, and described what they had come across. Even if we believe that we “know” all about our surrounding and the life conditions of people, most of us have just grabbed two or three parts of this elephant. Finally, after having talked for almost two hours, he acknowledged the existence of both homosexual men and women in Somalia, as well as the existence of sex workers and cases of men and women being unfaithful to their spouses. His summary of our conversation was that “maybe we have got AIDS as a gift from God, so we would need to deal with difficult and important issues in life."
There is a huge contrast in seeing AIDS as God's punishment and as a gift In short, today the Imams in Galkayo take an active part in the prevention work together with Rahmo Organisation, and they include information about HIV and AIDS in connection to the Friday prayers, in a non-judging way. In relation to the “condoms’ incident”, he mentioned a wish to visit a factory where condoms were produced, so he could see with his own eyes how the condoms were made. I did not find any organisation or company willing to finance a project bringing some ten Somali Imams on such a trip. Two years later, UNICEF and GFATM had included a separate project on working with religious leaders. I am not sure whether it involved a “condom trip” or not though.
A positive example with religious origin is the Buddhist Leadership Initiative. An example in the overall Buddhist view on HIV and AIDS, the Sangha Metta Project in Thailand engages monks in HIV prevention and AIDS care. It is unique in the sense that monks themselves initiated it, in response to the need for Buddhist monks to have a more active role in HIV prevention and AIDS care. Taking the Buddha's teachings as their inspiration, monks concluded that a core aspect of HIV and AIDS was ignorance about the condition among both the sufferers and the general public. The Sangha Metta Project teaches monks, nuns and novices about HIV and AIDS. It then equips them with modern participatory social management skills and tools so they can work effectively in their communities, both to prevent further HIV transmission and to help people living with HIV or AIDS and their families.
Even though there exists many good local projects initiated by Christian and Muslim congregations, there is no overall responsibility from these two religions connected to HIV and AIDS work. In many countries, religious groups have instead taken on the role of "owning the issue", as in stating that they ‘know’ how to handle the matter from a faith based perspective and telling others how and what to do in the case of AIDS, without having a dialogue with other parts of the society. This is just as reprehensible as to counter the religious groups, i.e. not letting them become a part of a comprehensive approach on, for example prevention strategies. What is the purpose of AIDS work? I believe our task is to prevent the continuous spread of HIV and support people living with HIV or AIDS and other affected persons. No one alone – person or organisation – has the full answer; therefore, we must work together.
There are much more to be added in this perspective and to reason about, so maybe I will get back to and publish more about this later on in another context.