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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

A Spirited Response
Malaysia's AIDS activists woo Muslim clerics

Call it an article of faith. When a group of Islamic clerics, scholars, lawyers, government officials and activists emerged from their meeting in May, they noted that AIDS had become an epidemic in Malaysia. The solution, they decided, lay in education - for everyone, including religious officials and pre-teens. Beyond that, the group called on the community to be caring toward sufferers. That, they declared, is the way of Islam.

Technology: A New China Gateway
Shanghai tries to solve an e-payments puzzle

Media: Transfer Or Exile?
Fears for press freedom as a Hong Kong broadcast boss moves on

Health: Aids Explosion
Time bombs along the Mekong call for a regional solution
• A Spirited Response Malaysia's AIDS activists woo Muslim clerics

Theater: Change Of Pace
After fame as tragic heroine, Lea Salonga brushes up on her comic timing

Books: Japan's Stellar Poet
A modern woman who saved an ancient art

Cinema: Singapore's Gang of Five
How serious is the problem of girl violence?

Newsmakers: Eternal Marital Affair
Sonia and Rajiv, a never-ending story

Why older people benefit from some extra weight

"It's very forward-thinking," activist Joe Selvaretnam says of the resolution from the meeting. At issue is the Islamic establishment's response to AIDS in predominantly Muslim Malaysia. The religious officials recognized that they could do a lot to halt the epidemic. (More than 30,000 Malaysians are infected and another 2,800 have developed symptoms.) "The leaders recognize they have a frontline role in prevention: equipping people with spiritual values and teaching everyone compassion," says Selvaretnam, a member of the Malaysian AIDS Council headed by the premier's daughter, Marina Mahathir.

Mildly worded as it is, the resolution nonetheless challenges the orthodoxy in some Islamic circles where AIDS is regarded as a "manifestation of God's punishment." This unbending view makes some Muslim sufferers afraid to approach religious bodies, says Khartini Slamah, who volunteers at a community center offering support to AIDS patients. "Their past life is held against them, and requests for help may be rejected. They turn to religion but are turned away."

Fatimah knows from painful experience. After she and her husband tested HIV-positive two years ago, they were evicted from their rented home, with a baby in tow. Soon Fatimah lost her job too. But when she sought help from a religious agency, the reply was "we don't entertain people like you here." Personal accounts from people such as Fatimah moved the Muslim leaders to take a more pro-active stance. And activists hope an international AIDS conference underway in Kuala Lumpur will add momentum to their prevention program. True, the muftis, or religious advisers, reached consensus on the need to "reduce harm." But still they had to get individual state authorities to back their call for full information about prevention, from urging abstinence and marital fidelity to promoting the use of condoms.

The last method is a potential problem since religious officials forbid sex outside marriage. Certainly, proposals for condom distribution and a needle-exchange program for drug users are drawing flak. Dr. Ishak Mas'ud of the Muslim youth movement ABIM attacks such plans as "promoting drug addiction and promiscuity." Not true, say activists. Selvaretnam points instead to declining HIV infections after needle-exchange was introduced in the West.

Still, activists are making headway. An invitation from Islamic officials to set up an information booth at a K.L. mosque is one example. "A milestone," says Selvaretnam. Next on the AIDS council wish list: a project to raise awareness in state religious departments. And they have just the tool: AIDS Education Through Imams. The booklet was produced for a Uganda program which trained prayer leaders to reach out to families. The council hopes to replicate this in Malaysia, eventually tying in Friday sermons and counseling for engaged couples. Faith, they say, works wonders.

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