I would just like to bring awareness to the issue of HIV and faith as we observe World AIDS Day on December 1.
As I try to be helpful in creating awareness about this chronic illness, which is now controllable and preventable through education, anti-retroviral drugs and early HIV testing, many people of faith continue to be daunted by fear and stigma.
Since the 1980s, the awareness created by pop stars like Bono, Alicia Keys and others to reach into the consciousness of world leaders as well as leading faith people, has made the continent of Africa no longer alone in its fight against HIV.
To wear the red ribbon is not a stigma any longer.
Recently, I was involved with a team of Muslim leaders and concerned citizens to bring awareness about pre testing for HIV. While people do not contract HIV by sexual activities alone but by blood transfusion and sharing unclean needles, etc, yet I saw the stigma people who are positive face. People living with HIV continue to face barriers around disclosure, and it heightens the stigma and prevents better health-seeking behaviour and support. At the Taric mosque, in summer 2012, a conference was held and a woman in hijab boldly spoke of her story of breaking down barriers and standing up against discrimination, even when she was faced with a lot of prejudice and stigma from community members. Another man who is a community advocate on HIV and other social justice issues spoke about his journey of living with HIV, and doing awareness-raising through education and community research. Both speakers felt dignified; that for the first time they were allowed and accepted in the house of God, without being judged.
In the spring of this year, at Ryerson University, in Toronto, a set of community leaders and people living with HIV (PHAs) from various ethnic communities in the Greater Toronto Area undertook a study of the impact of stigma and discrimination. Participants in the study found that the hurt of being ridiculed and judged is worse than the illness or the act itself. The study is still ongoing with participants reporting on what activities they are undertaking in their communities to address HIV stigma and related issues.
Faith is about leaving the judging to God. While religion doesn’t condone any lifestyle outside the pale of the Holy teachings, the reality is, several people around the world living with HIV are faced with lack of dignity, poverty, no access to medicine, ostracism. Such hopelessness and despair in people’s lives does not allow the survival and thriving of religion. Religion in other words becomes a disregarded issue and it‘s neither encouraged nor taught to both the young and the old. When a growing section of the affected communities are shut out from places of worship and are told that using protection during union is forbidden and other times affected individuals are told that they are cursed and cannot be cured, then faith leaders have the moral obligation to speak out.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean is the story of South Africa. It is heartening and humbling for an Imam who has taken on the HIV/AIDS issue for the past two decades. Imam Farid Esack has embarked on awareness-raising and education campaigns on the subject, and provided moral, spiritual, social and financial support and dignity for people living with, and at risk of HIV infection. The Imam has worked on legislation in collaboration with local leaders to ensure that people living with HIV and affected communities have better access to resources to improve their livelihoods, and continue to have a better shot at their life goals and potential. Farid Esack is no stranger, battling this neo-apartheid on the global front of human suffering.
We may all be aware that HIV is not spread by saliva or touching and that someone living with HIV can have a ‘normal’ life with family. Someone with HIV can visit the mosque for Friday Juma prayers, the church on Sundays or the Temple to worship the creator without hurting anyone. Jesus spoke to us long before that ‘judge not for you will be judged’ and the Prophet Muhammad taught us that ‘the best of you are those that are most beneficial to humanity.’
It’s time for us to open our arms to at least listen to people with lived experiences around HIV and allow them the safe space they require in order for them to tell their stories, without being judged. In so doing we become the essence of a good life, ie to make a difference to humanity.
“The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread” – Mother Teresa.