A special session of the United Nations dealing with AIDS is concluding Wednesday. A joint declaration will be issued in which UN members will commit to fight the deadly disease. Conflict over proper language use rose when Muslim countries protested the reference made to homosexuals and prostitutes, two phenomena that are not as common in the Muslim world.

Despite criticism of the Muslim countries' concern over the use of language, such a stance is only a reflection of the Muslim faith-based culture and religion preferences. However, such sensitivity, while understandable in this context, might be harmful in the greater scheme of things.

There are currently 34 million people who are infected with the AIDS virus, 95 percent of them reside in the world's poorest regions, mainly Sub Saharan Africa. In the worst hit African countries, life expectancy is predicted to dwindle to 29 rather than 71 by the end of the next decade. This will result mainly from untimely deaths caused by AIDS.

In an earlier conference in Africa, more shocking facts and figures were laid open. While the high profile 13th International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa concluded a few days after its initiation, poor countries were left helpless in the midst of a raging crisis. Meanwhile, richer nations, where AIDS management is reaching astounding achievements, still have much to worry about.

But as both rich and poor are frankly admitting the intensity of the catastrophic disease, the Arab and Muslim worlds seem largely careless regarding the danger of the epidemic, as if it is shielded by a magic spell or worse, by denial.

In his speech before the eighth International Bioethics Symposium: Global Concern on AIDS, held in Tokyo in the late 1990s, Malaysian thinker Dr. Munawar Anees stated, "the absence of awareness of AIDS in the Muslim world is understandable: It is a logical conclusion that follows the sanctimonious denial of, or wishful thinking about AIDS." Such "wishful thinking" is certainly a leading factor in the unreported growth of the AIDS epidemic in the Muslim world, a fact that can never be proven without a governmental change of attitude toward AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

It is little contested that the Muslim world's chances of being fertile soil for AIDS is much less than Africa and Europe. Islamic doctrines and tradition which succeeded in institutionalizing a solid system of sexual behavior, arranging and shaping a unique Muslim perception of sexual relationships, has also shielded the Muslim world from being easy prey for AIDS. Yet arguing that the Muslim world is largely AIDS free or that the epidemic has little presence among Muslims is a mere fantasy, a fantasy that could lead to disaster.

Most Arab and Muslim countries fall into the gap of the impoverished half of the world, a reality that is known to be a producer of many grievous phenomena, beside people's failure to guarantee a suitable home and nutritious food. Poverty in many parts of the world lays the foundation for extremely dangerous social illnesses such as prostitution, drug addiction and others. Such problems constitute a golden opportunity for AIDS to strike.

Millions of Muslims live torn between two geographical entities: the United States and the Middle East, South East Asia, Europe and elsewhere. As expected, not every Muslim immigrant to the West upholds his or her highly regarded principles of total abstinence before and in-between marriages. Among the large number of returning Muslim immigrants, students and visitors to their birth places, where most of them often prefer to find a partner, AIDS lurks and slowly infiltrates Muslim societies. Consequently, entire families could be infected by the HIV virus without knowing the basics of the disease or even being aware of the infection.

In other cases, AIDS enters the Muslim world in a much more tragic way, through mass rapes. Dare we forget the mass rape of thousands of Muslim women, young girls and even boys in Bosnia and Kosovo. Similar cases are also reported in the ongoing Chechens strife with Russia.

No one is fully protected from the wrath of AIDS, including Muslim nations. The increasing fatalities as a result of the epidemic, however, appear little relevant to most Muslim governments. Most Muslim media reported on the advancing disease throughout the South African conference, as if it only takes place "there" and never "here."

The unjustifiable failure to address the AIDS problem in the Muslim world can hardly be separated from other failures to address many consequential social and political problems and phenomena that systematically devastate the lives of many people. Using religious tradition to "taboo" such issues is pure hypocrisy, considering the Islamic traditions' openness and willingness to discuss every matter in life.

AIDS kills not only prostitutes, homosexuals and drug users but also children and other victims who were innocently infected by a disease that many know nothing about. Muslims must also join in the quest for understanding and controlling AIDS before reality hits hard and late, for hiding one's head in the sand is no longer a means of salvation.

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