For AIDS workers in Malaysia, the fight against the deadly virus has become not only a health issue but also a campaign on the religious front. A recent Islamic religious decree in Malaysia has reopened the divide between conservative clerics and AIDS activists.
For Muslim couples in the Malaysian state of Johor, a trip to the clinic is now necessary before their marriage rites. A fatwa, or Islamic decree, issued early last month orders couples wishing to marry to undergo mandatory testing for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Authorities say this is done to prevent infected couples from passing on the virus to their children.
But the move has sparked opposition from AIDS groups in Malaysia. They say mandatory testing will only increase discrimination of infected people and perhaps scare them away from seeking treatment and counseling. "This is not really the best way to do it," said Marina Mahathir, head of the Malaysian AIDS Council. "There is no evidence that mandatory testing helps in HIV/AIDS prevention in any way." The World Health Organization says Malaysia has more than 40,000 HIV infected people. Curbing the epidemic has been on top of the agenda for the country's health authorities.
But the effort is fraught with clashes between religious beliefs and Western ideas for dealing with the disease. Some Islamic clerics are against preventive methods such as the use of condoms. Islam prohibits sex outside marriage and encouraging condom use is viewed as promoting promiscuity.
AIDS activists say religious reactions such as the fatwa not only fail to address the problem in terms of public health, but also ignore some underlying issues of AIDS in Malaysia, such as gender inequality or the dominance of men in marriage.
More than 90 percent of all infected Malaysians are men, and they drive the course of the spread of AIDS in the country.
"We can't have the religious authorities sitting in every home and making sure that they [couples] can't get infected," said Ivy Josiah, executive director of Women's Aid organization, which runs a counseling service for women with HIV. "We recognize that women lack the power to determine when and where sex takes place. So if prevention is the objective, then all policies and programs should address gender inequality."
There are reports that other Malaysian states also may introduce similar fatwas on AIDS. Abu Bakar Majeed, a senior fellow of the government-funded Islamic think-tank, IKIM, says clerics are trying their best to find a suitable solution.
"There are certain things that are not totally acceptable to both sides," she said. "But on the whole, I think they would agree with one another. On the whole, they are fighting this together."
Ms. Mahathir of the Malaysian AIDS Council says the challenge is to keep clerics informed so they can take appropriate action. "With religious leaders, really the approach is to make available all information about HIV/AIDS and to find ways that are sensitive to their need," she said.
To this end, a delegation of religious leaders was sent to Uganda to observe an AIDS prevention program in the Islamic community there. The African country has a worse AIDS epidemic than Malaysia but Islamic leaders and health workers there have joined in an information and counseling campaign.
Mr. Abu Bakar believes sending clerics on an AIDS drive at a grassroots level could make a difference. "The personal touch of clerics is really needed for them to go down and talk to the people on the ground because they are closest even to some potential victims of AIDS," he said.
Ms. Mahathir says the Ugandan example has drawn positive feedback from Malaysian religious leaders and a variation of the program may be implemented in the country. That could be the move that finally bridges the gap between two opposing groups facing a single problem - the AIDS epidemic.