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Muslim views of AIDS, part 1

Mulsim Woman Looking UpAs scientists continue to inch closer to a cure for AIDS, people in some of the poorest parts of the world continue to struggle against the disease. With no cure availabe and with limited resources, impoverished nations can only do so much to combat AIDS. In such circumstances, it is no surprise when people turn to the supernatural for answers. Cultural scientist Jonas Svensson (Linnaeus University, Sweden) looks at Muslim responses to AIDS and tries to figure out why the “divine punishment” response is so prevalent.

Svensson hypothesizes that a combination of psychological, cognitive, and contextual factors lead to the “AIDS as divine punishment” interpretation dominating the popular Muslim mindset. To do this, he uses a variety of research in order to understand what exactly is happening in the Islamic world. In short, he is in effect working backwards: he knows what the conclusion is (Muslims, in spite of alternatives, lean towards seeing AIDS as a result of God’s punishment) and wants to determine why.

Svensson notes two main alternative interpretation to AIDS that rival the divine punishment interpretation. First, some Muslims completely deny any direct role God has with AIDS. AIDS exists just like any other disease and does not require special religious attention. Second, God sends AIDS to people as a test either of their patience and endurance or of society’s compassion for that person.

Alternative intepretations aside, one can find diversity of interpretations even within the interpretation of divine punishment. For instance, God could have sent AIDS to punish deviant groups, certain individuals for doing particular sins, or society as a whole.

Assuming Muslims to be unreflective, someone might object to all of these interpretations of divine punishment and thus AIDS as divine punishment in general: clearly not only immoral people get AIDS. Righteous women could get the disease from their husbands or from a rapist. Equally clear, children whose mother has AIDS will also get AIDS, but what horrible sin have they commited that warrants such a steep punishment? In response, Muslims can defend AIDS as divine punishment by arguing that (1) there must be some immorality, otherwise the person would not be so punished, and/or (2) the innocents who get infected are tragic “collateral damage” of the ones who deserve the punishment. For Svensson, these arguments effectively shield the divine punishment interpretation of AIDS from criticism.

The success of the spreading of this interpretation hinges on a variety of factors, including environmental, ecological, social, cultural context (including authority structures and institutions), psychological, and cognitive (especially memory). Importantly, these factors need to come together in such a way as to make mental processing easy, not only in understanding the concept itself (in this case, divine punishment) but also for communicating the concept through representations and rhetoric.

With this in mind, Svenssen pinpoints three reasons for why he thinks AIDS as divine punishment has become so prevalent among Muslims. First, it has intuitive appeal. Despite best efforts, all humans anthropomorphize God to some degree, treating God as a superhuman. Since regular humans enact punishment, one can easily imagine God doing the same. Second, divine punishment generates a wider range of inferences than its rivals – that is, it provides the greatest explanatory power. Third and finally, AIDS as divine punishment demands the least cognitive effort among possible interpretations. Again, one can easily envision a superhuman agent enacting punishment; much trickier is envisioning AIDS as a test of faith or trying to merge a view where God is actively involved in human lives with one where God is entirely uninvolved in something so deeply important (having and dealing with AIDS). Divine punishment produces the least cognitive dissonance.

So far, Svenssen has merely provided the necessary background for what exactly he’s after: why divine punishment become the go-to explanation for AIDS in the Islamic world. The next step, as will be seen in part 2, is to go beyond theory and to test it.


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