AIDS and Religion in Africa
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Presently, somewhere between 34 and 46 million people live with AIDS worldwide. In total, Africa holds the highest number with just under 30 million people suffering from AIDS. Sub-Saharan Africa, by itself, accounts for between 25 and 28.2 million people. These numbers leave Northern Africa with just over one million people living with HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
Any news you hear regarding the AIDS Epidemic, a main topic involves Sub-Saharan Africa. Besides a somewhat different climate, what else is special about Northern Africa that seems to keep the population’s HIV/AIDS prevalence rates low compared to the southern portion of the continent. Look at the two figures in the Appendix. One figure represents the religious spread including Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Indigenous Religions. The other figure illustrates the spread of AIDS in Africa. Notice the similarities in spread. High correlation exists between low rates and the Islam territory and with high rates and Christianity. Religion seems to have immense influence over the spread of AIDS.
The history of African religion dates back centuries through original tribal religions, Islam, Christianity with some Judaism. Within this paper, I will briefly describe the spread of each of these religions including tensions between each other and the already present traditional religions. Following this description, I will describe the main ideas behind each religion in a theological viewpoint as well as any social implications. These tenets are long developed with distinct traditions and beliefs backing them through the centuries. Over the last 20 years, a new factor has developed in Africa exerting extreme pressure on many of these long-lived traditions. I want to explore the relationship between the rise of the AIDS epidemic and the subsequent public health campaigns challenges focusing on the traditions behind the main religions. I look to explore how some of the already present traditions aid and also hurt the fight against AIDS, some of the religions’ reactions to the epidemic and future predictions on how the epidemic will reshape religion in Africa and possibly globally.
Islam in Africa:
The actual definition of the word, “Islam”, “refers to the peace that come from surrender to God” (World Religions: Islam). The book of Islam is the Quran, an unedited version of The Holy Prophet Muhammad’s messages of Allah’s teachings. The Islamic religion’s main tenets involve the “affirmation of one God, with total repudiation of polytheism and all forms of idolatry, including the use of images” with importance stressed with overall justice, humility and submission (McCasland, Cairns and Yu, 328).
Although the Islam worship Allah, they do not depend on him for happiness or salvation. Both are dependent on the individual, absolute personal control, with the knowledge that “good deeds will be rewarded in the next life” (World Religions: Islam). There exists Five Pillars that every Muslim must practice: “1) recite the basic creed, "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet"; (2) recite prayers in praise of Allah five times daily while facing Mecca; (3) give money to the poor; (4) fast for one month a year; and (5) make a pilgrimage at least once during his lifetime to Mecca, the city where Allah revealed the (Quran) to Muhammad” (World Religions: Islam). Overall, the Islam religion does not hold many complicated requirements for salvation and puts the individual in control of himself with specific encouragement to do good actions towards those around him.
Starting in the 7th century, Islam was the second major religion to challenge and then change the traditional African religious beliefs. Christianity did have some hold on the countries, but the majority of the territory was under indigenous religions. The Holy Prophet Muhammad established and spread Islam throughout Arabs until his death in A.D. 632. “Islam united Arabs and empowered them not only to spread a religion and culture but to establish political control in areas far beyond their own land” (Falola 83), with definite emphasis on trading networks. In A.D. 640, Arabs conquered Egypt establishing a strong trade agreement throughout the lower Nile leading to eventual domination of Northern Africa. The combination of politics with religious belief solidified their hold on these territories for multiple reasons: First, Arabs recruited non-Arabs into their armies from the communities it had already conquered thus increasing military strength. Second, converts from within the conquered communities “worked as missionary agents among their own people” (Falola 85). Finally, the Arabs established Arabic as the “language of administration, religion, education and commerce” (Falola 85) making life without conversion extremely difficult. The continuation of similar conquests throughout Northern Africa was successful in converting Africans to the Islamic religion. From the political and economical base formed, peaceful missionary efforts and international trade worked to slowly convert other parts of Africa while further strengthening the Islam presence in Northern Africa. This strength is why Northern Africa is still “dominantly Islamic” (Falola 79).
Within Africa, Islam exhibits flexibility enabling the missionaries to easily convert Africans from their previous religious beliefs. In conquering Northern Africa, the missionaries concentrated on “blending indigenous practices with Islamic ones” (Falola 79-81). The main idea differing from many African religions was that of only one God: Allah. Further, an increased sense of unity in communities promoting Islam beliefs and encouragement to help community members in need “went against the practice of relations based on families and clans” (Falola 81). Overall, the advent of Islam incorporated an extreme sense of unity throughout all Islamic communities. Even without the flexibility, Islam without alterations looks favorable for possible converts. The religion is simple to understand, holds individual control and focuses on being a good person towards other members of the community. Although Islam may be flexible with the actual beliefs, the religion is very strict on whether or not one professes Islam as his/her religion. Therefore, the religion was flexible on some notes, but the African people had to go through the actual conversion to become Islam. The politics and social pressures were too great to avoid.
Christianity in Africa:
Like Islam, Christianity also worships only one God. Unlike Islam, Christianity recognizes Jesus as the Son of God who came to Earth as the second part to the Holy Trinity: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Further, Jesus lived on earth, died for the sins of the people and then was resurrected and ascended into Heaven. The death and resurrection serve to show “God's love for humanity and God's forgiveness of human sins; and that by faith in Jesus one may attain salvation and eternal life” (encyclopaedia.com). Christians follow the teachings within The Bible with emphasis on the New Testament while still acknowledging parts of the Old Testament. A Christian focus differing from Islam is the potential for God’s influence in one’s present life. In an article focused on Islam/Christianity struggles in Nigeria, a Christian missionary says, “‘In Africa you virtually have to depend on divine intervention to have things working for you’… prayers that spigots will yield water and phones will have dial tones” (Martel). Unlike Islam, Christians can ask God to help in present life whereas the Islam can only hope for salvation and happiness in future lives all based on their present actions. Further description of Christianity will continue within the Judaism section through comparison and contrast.
When the Islam fought in North Africa for territory, they were not only converting from traditional tribal religions. Many of the communities the Islamic armies converted had held Christianity as their main religion. In response to losing so much territory to Islam, Christianity in Africa assumed a defensive role now referred to as one of several Crusades: “a series of wars initiated by Christians to win back their holy lands from Muslims…the Crusaders were ultimately unable to reclaim their holy lands” (Dowling) until nearly eight centuries later.
Stemming from roots in Europe and North America, successful Christian missionaries traveled through Africa starting around 1880 and eventually claimed about 25% of Africa as Christian territory. Christianity was working to replace both Islam and Indigenous Religions in its missionary work during the late 1800s. Much difficulty in converting resulted from Islam’s strong political hold in addition to a social hold. Besides becoming Christian, missionaries hoped the Africans would “go to school, develop their agriculture, and consume imported items” (Falola 152). The first missionaries were Protestants from Germany, Britain and the United States followed by Roman Catholics from Italy and France. Spreading Christian territory was a main motive for the missionaries, but “many among them believed the conversion would halt the spread of Islam and help to end the slave trade” (Falola 152). The original penetration occurred in Sierra Leone and Liberia where recently released slaves desired economic and social independence. The missionary movement did not gain much territory towards the north, but eventually gained about 25% of Africa by converting the majority of Sub-Saharan Africa to Christianity.
Judaism in Africa:
Although Judaism accounts for a small percentage of African populations, the religion still has an impact on life in Africa. In many aspects, Judaism holds many similarities to Christianity, but simultaneously, Judaism has distinct differences making it impossible to group the religion with those of the Christian traditions. The main tenets include: only one God exists, Moses is the main prophet, and God will reward the good and punish the bad. The Jewish religion follows the words of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (the Old Testament). Although Christianity did stem from Judaism, key differences exist. For one, Judaism does not include the Holy Trinity. In Judaism, God is responsible for the good and the evil. Separating his power into three only serves to weaken his power. On the same note, Jesus was just a human. He did not remove any sins from anyone. To rid oneself of sin within the Jewish religion, one must repent and try to right the wrong (Rich).
Unlike Christianity and Islam, Judaism did not spread through active missionary work or through conquering battles. Judaism entered Africa through Jewish merchants. On trading voyages, the merchants would gain Jewish supporters through a type of informal recruiting. Over the years, communities of Jewish Africans grew throughout Africa through word-of-mouth and intermarriage. Typically, those who did convert to Judaism stayed to themselves and towards the outskirts of their communities due to legal and social reasons. A large number of the once Jewish communities fell with the missionary campaigns of both Islam and Christianity (The Jews of Africa).
As the religion did not form large dents in the overall history of religion, Judaism did not influence Africa drastically. Like Islam, Judaism held a complete change from the original indigenous religions with the worship of a single god. The religion gave no option with multiple worship subjects. Those that seemed to accept most of the Jewish religion but worshiped more than simply God could easily choose Christianity. The Jewish religion did move through Africa and still claims several small communities as Jewish, but looking at the whole scheme of the history of religion, Judaism represents a minute portion.
One interesting aspect to the Jewish history is the discovery of a completely authentic, genetically Jewish community – Beta Israel in Ethiopia. In 1975, the Chief Rabbi wrote to them saying, “You are our brothers, you are our blood and our flesh. You are true Jews” (The History of Ethiopian Jews). Because of this designation, many Ethiopian Jews fled to Israel to escape Christian and Islam pressures. Because of these factors: returning to Israel, Christian and Islam pressures, the Jewish population is tiny. Some small Jewish communities exist within Africa still. They stay to themselves, separate from the bulk of society to avoid those pressuring factors.
AIDS in General:
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a sexually transmitted disease (either homosexually or heterosexually), but another common method of transmission is through intravenous drug use. The virus works by infecting the T4 cells of the immune system. These cells typically work to “identify the intruder and to authorize other cells to produce antibodies to kill it” (Berer 7). Once infected by HIV, the virus changes the genetic make-up of the T4 cells making it reproduce the virus. HIV effectively weakens the immune system by taking over the main cell in charge leaving the body vulnerable to other viruses. Once the number of healthy T4 cells decreases and the victim becomes infected with one or more HIV related illnesses, the victim is said to have AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). At this point, the victim typically lives an average of less than a year (Berer 10). What final kills the victim is typically one of many opportunistic diseases such as TB or just a simple cold that would not normally kill a healthy person. The weakened immune system breaks down to the slightest degree of challenge.
Although unprotected sex and needle sharing represent direct methods of transmission, indirect methods account for the large numbers of sufferers worldwide. The presence of social stigma results in the largest increases in prevalence and incidence of AIDS. Generally, stigma is the social disapproval of some deviation from the norm. Stigma typically arises out of a general ignorance regarding a disease. For example, the original belief about the spread of AIDS was that only homosexual men could contract the virus. This false belief causes discrimination against countless numbers of homosexual men in many aspects of daily life. After time proved this belief incorrect, Americans started blaming Haitian immigrants for spreading the disease (Farmer). After that, the pattern just continued. Generally, people attribute diseases like AIDS to the fault of the person afflicted, that the person deserved their fate of HIV/AIDS. Both the incorrect beliefs of mode of transmission and the consequential social treatment perpetuate the AIDS epidemic. In regards to HIV/AIDS, stigma keeps the infected from openly acknowledging their infection. If someone does acknowledge having HIV, he/she simultaneously becomes a social outcast. In many cases, stigma keeps those potentially infected from even taking a blood test due to fear of social disapproval. Without testing or acknowledging their situation, the infected can still transmit the disease to others. The main method of eradicating stigma is through public education with hope to try to erase some of the myths and change the social rejection to one of acceptance and support for those infected.
Religion and AIDS:
Religion can play a key role in social reaction to AIDS. Religion largely accounts for the rules and behaviors within a community. Further and more importantly, society often looks to religion for its reaction to various social deviances. A society’s rejection or acceptance largely depends on religion’s decision. Between Islam, Christian and Jewish religions, the general rules and reactions towards AIDS of the respective religions have a direct influence on a country’s presence of stigma. This influence thus drastically affects the country’s incidence and prevalence rates.
Presently, the countries holding Islam as its national religion also hold the lowest incidence/prevalence rates. Those countries with Christian religions have somewhat higher rates. More specifically, the Catholic countries have lower rates than non-Catholic, Christian countries. Jewish populations are so small that AIDS rates are not available and do not say much due to the small size. Several aspects about each religion affect these rates and have huge impacts on the reaction to those rates. Important to note is that some of the African countries hold several religions. Little to no research has been conducted to break down AIDS prevalence rates according to the victim’s religion. In doing this research, I researched countries based on their main or official religion. Breaking the countries into their individual states could change some of the data. Unfortunately, information regarding African states, their primary religion and their HIV/AIDS rates is not easily available. My research should serve as a starting point possibly attributing religion to be a main influential factor in determining AIDS prevalence rates within different communities.
Islam and AIDS:
The Islam religion holds several traits or rules that keep HIV/AIDS vulnerability and risky practices to a low number. Both the religious beliefs as well as the political standing within the communities plays large roles in the low prevalence rates in Northern Africa. Although not a direct cause, a main conflict between AIDS and the politics behind Islam is the inequality of women within the religion. “Women continue to be regarded more as possible temptations to sin for men than as human beings with their own responsibilities before God” (World Religions: Islam). As a recent example of the inequality separate from AIDS, look at Amina Lawal’s story. After giving birth to a child more than nine months after divorce, a 31-year-old, Nigerian woman was convicted of adultery and faced a death penalty of stoning. This penalty’s roots stem from Shariah Law, based on the teachings of the Quran. The alleged father was not prosecuted because he claimed he was not the father, but the court administered no tests to verify his claim (Koinange). The general inequality of women does not give them the freedom to have polygamous relations. The Islam law is so strict with adultery that men rarely engage in polygamous relations. In this Nigerian case, the man simply denied any role in Amina Lawal’s situation. In this example, Amina Lawal was freed along with her illegitimate child after several rounds through the Nigerian judicial system. Although parts of the Islamic law are strict and harsh, several of the Islamic Presidents do not believe in the extreme method of control. Looking at the original belief of the method of transmission of HIV/AIDS, homosexuality is almost more frowned upon than a woman’s sexual activity due to its unnatural, non-biological nature. Once again, Islam’s strict political punishments for socially deviant behavior successfully controls against risky behavior within its members. Like Christianity, Islam does not allow homosexual activity. In the Hadith, a collection of Muhammad’s sayings, it reads: “when a man mounts another man, the throne of God shakes” and “kill the one that is doing it and also kill the one that it is being done to” (Islam and Homosexuality). Like Lawal’s example with the punishment accompanying adultery, strict penalties exist for socially deviant acts such as homosexuality.
One important note is the main mode of transmission within the HIV/AIDS cases of Northern Africa among the Islam religion. Unlike the main worldwide mode of transmission, needle sharing is one of the main modes. Unprotected sex is not the main method of transmission. If transmission does occur through sexual intercourse, it is through heterosexual relations. However, regardless of methods of transmission, the rates are so low that method of transmission is not as important as with countries with high rates (UNAIDS).
Christianity and AIDS:
The pope’s adamant standing on AIDS reflects reasons why the Christian countries have the highest AIDS rates. His standing is almost one of denial of cause and realistic measures to improve the situation. In 1989, "It is morally illicit to champion a prevention of the AIDS sickness based on recourse to means and remedies that violate the authentically human sense of sexuality". He goes on to say: “The necessary prevention against the threat of AIDS is not inspired by fear but instead by the choice of a healthy, free and responsible lifestyle” (Pope’s suggestions on preventing AIDS). Without acknowledging the main mode of transmission, unprotected sex, the pope makes all public health campaigns’ jobs much more difficult. These public health organizations go throughout the African communities trying to educate the people on the importance of protected sex. With an authority, such as the Pope, contradicting much of what the organizations are trying to say, their work becomes increasingly more difficult. The pope made these comments in 1989, maybe he did not understand himself. Unfortunately, this is just hopeful thinking. The Catholic Church still claims that not only are condoms, or any sort of contraception against the morals of the church, they do not even work in preventing HIV/AIDS transmission. In response, the World Health Organization (WHO) says: “These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people, and currently affects at least 42 million” (Swank).
Along the same lines as contraception, the church is also against homosexual relations. A Vatican Document reads: “Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law” (Vatican Drive to curb Gay marriages). For this example though, being against homosexual relations should help the fight against AIDS. On the same note, Christianity is against adultery and sex out of marriage, but AIDS rates are still the highest in Africa. Punishments in Christianity come after death during the ultimate Judgment. Islam punishments are fairly immediate and extreme deterring any deviant behavior.
Parallel with the religion’s views, a Catholic organization called Youth Alive works in several African countries to fight AIDS. Their main message is “to create a healthy state of mind, body, spirit and environment through behavior formation and change” (Meet Yoram Siame from CRS’ Partner Youth Alive). This mission statement echoes the pope’s sentiments regarding changing immoral behaviors before changing moral values. For a concrete example, the pope and Youth Alive urge its people to completely abstain from sex instead of compromising their morals and self-discipline with contraception such as condoms. This organization is a start and could have drastic positive change because of their work. The fact that the church is making an active effort to help the problem shows huge improvement already.
Judaism and AIDS:
The African Jewish population is small and getting smaller because of Christian and Islam pressures. The religion still has its opinions on AIDS, a rather optimistic view acknowledging religion’s role in stigmatization and thus the spread of AIDS.
“Since much of the stigmatization of people infected with HIV has come from religious quarters, synagogue involvement in AIDS activities can send the message that people living with HIV/AIDS have not been abandoned by the Jewish community. On the contrary, they will discover that the Jewish community is there for them when they need it most.” (Judaism and AIDS)
At the same time, the Jewish religion is suffering in terms of numbers in Africa. The religion cannot afford to be strict within that continent. The religion is working against AIDS worldwide so their efforts seem sincere.
General Public Health Concerns:
Countless numbers of public health organizations are working within Africa striving to gain some ground in the battle against HIV/AIDS. Some of these organizations are government-run, non-government organizations (NGO), social community groups…ranging from worldwide to ones focused on one tiny village in Botswana. Some examples of these organizations include the United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS), World Health Organization (WHO)... Each organization has a specific goal in mind. Each of these issues deserves a whole research paper. Some specifically are working with AIDS orphans, some with the famine resulting from a lack of agricultural workers, some with commercial sex workers, social equality for women…the list seems endless. All of these issues hold some connection to all the others.
The most difficult issue for each of the public health organizations is working towards their specific goal through the pressures and influences of the community’s political system and social system. These systems both include the religious system. As we read in the Judaism quote above, religions have much power in negatively enforcing social stigma towards AIDS. Considering the power and influence religion holds over its people, the public health campaigns’ efforts constantly face these obstacles.
These comments on public health concerns only shed some light on all the issues behind the relationship between public health organizations and religion. The relationship between religion and its people is not even completely clear as to what extent the religion affects its people and their choices. This influence is impossible to remove. The strategy to overcome that influence cannot be to try to win the people over; it must entail a more cooperative, flexible strategy working to form a trusting relationship with the religion before attempting to work against it. The religion and the public health campaigns must work towards a common goal for any success in regards to the war against HIV/AIDS and all the issues behind that main target.
Another important aspect is that AIDS attacks impoverished populations. Christian territory represents some of the poorest populations in the world. Besides the fact that poverty keeps people from obtaining an adequate education, it also makes moral decisions difficult. General morals typically cost money to actively practice. Sex is one pleasure that impoverished people can afford. Because of the little amount of pleasure these people experience, public health organizations find it difficult to discourage it. Unfortunately, this free pleasure is now costing a lot more than it previously did.
One question I still have not answered is the question of people’s religion choices after contracting HIV/AIDS. Once they do become infected, do their religious practices increase, decrease, remain unchanged or do the sufferers convert to another religion? Most likely in Africa, conversion is rare once establishing a religion because whatever religion one holds is probably the religion that controls the area. Specifically for Islam, harsh penalties exist for socially deviant acts that can lead to the transmission of AIDS. Converting to a different supportive religion would attract the negative attention due to the conversion in general in addition to the aspect involving AIDS. The person would likely experience punishment for both actions. Religions play such a role in social stigma that whatever religion an HIV/AIDS victim practices may completely excommunicated the person because they have AIDS. The amount of choice on the actual victim’s part may be minimal.
On December 16, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is holding a roundtable conference in Abuja, Nigeria on “the role of religious leaders and communities in the fight against HIV/AIDS” (UNESCO’s Action against HIV/AIDS). Many of the questions I have brought up will hopefully find answers as well as strategies to utilize the knowledge and relationships to improve the world’s situation with AIDS, specifically in Africa.
Over 2000 years, Islam, Christianity and some Judaism have shaped themselves into Africa. The history building the social and political structures, the influence of each religion on each other along with those already existing indigenous religions would seemingly be strong and resistant to change. The AIDS Epidemic is forcing drastic change and further conflict between the various religions. This new tension over the past 20 years has accentuated originally small differences and has made them the determining factor in the fate of the different communities. Islam’s strict political structure along with the independent perspective on one’s life keeps HIV/AIDS rates to a minimum. Christianity’s (more specifically Catholic’s) stubborn yet moral viewpoint most harms public health’s efforts to eradicate the disease. Further, the lack of strict penalties for sins contributing to the spread of AIDS and the religious belief that you can repent your sins and still reach salvation at Judgment contribute to causes leading to exorbitantly high HIV/AIDS rates. Judaism, although small in numbers, seems to have the right idea as the only religion working to erase social stigma associated with the disease. This concept of stigma stands as the main determinant in battling HIV/AIDS. Until people have the education to work against public misconceptions, the social discrimination will continue leading to further propagation of the AIDS epidemic.
A main reason that I choose to cover some history behind how the religion spread across Africa was to potentially use these methods to aid public health’s spread across Africa. In its own scope, public health campaigns are a type of missionary trying to impose its beliefs on new communities, hoping to convert more people. Because of this potential competition, the present religions may exhibit extreme reluctance to the new views. When Islam entered Africa, they did use force in converting the communities. Although public health campaigns would be contradicting their main purpose if they chose this pathway, the general idea is important. Their purpose in Africa is of fatal importance. To succeed in eradicating HIV/AIDS, this disguised religion must approach the countries with some method to reach the already present religions and thus the people. Until public health organizations accept this role, the battle between religion and HIV/AIDS will continue.
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