Morocco Breaks Silence on HIV/AIDS, Confronts EpidemicMorocco, a country that has traditionally "shunned public discussion of AIDS," may be ready to "lif[t] the veil" on the issue, the Christian Science Monitor reports. Morocco has avoided discussing HIV/AIDS because of fears that public discussion the issue might "ril[e] Muslim conservatives" and expose the extent of the country's "clandestine sex industry." Hakima Himmich, Morocco's "most prominent AIDS campaigner" and director of an AIDS clinic, said that unpublished health ministry reports estimate the number of HIV-positive Moroccans to be 20,000. New HIV infections in Morocco quadrupled last year, and the virus is crossing from "high-risk" groups such as prostitutes to middle-class professionals. In an effort to raise awareness on the issue, Himmich wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi, asking him to fund a television campaign highlighting the dangers of STDs. Her appeal was rejected on the grounds that it might "incit[e] an Islamist backlash." Islamic opposition to public discussion of the AIDS epidemic is strong in Morocco's government. Mustafa Ramid, head of Morocco's parliamentary Islamist party, Justice and Development, said, "God ordained AIDS as a punishment for those who dared violate his laws. Condoms help only treat the outward show of the social disease of fornication, not the social disease itself." Himmich said of the government's decision not to run the ads, "We are on the verge of an AIDS epidemic, and the government does nothing to make the public aware."
Meanwhile, the private lives of many Moroccans "are becoming increasingly un-Islamic," the Christian Science Monitor reports. An "urban youth culture" and a "booming" sex industry are prevalent. And last month, Moroccan Princess Lalla Fatima Zohra "broke [the] taboo" on discussing HIV/AIDS by speaking publicly about the disease. This "controversial" statement has been viewed by some as a "sign that the government may be ready to act" against the crisis. In addition, the health ministry has opened an AIDS-awareness office and is working with the United Nations to organize a conference on AIDS training. U.N. officials are optimistic about these efforts. Alexis Pokrovsky, head of UNESCO's North Africa bureau, said, "You have to find out what is minimally acceptable for the religious and social authorities to allow you to say about sex and homosexuality. Once they've made that concession, then what's one more, and one more, and insidiously you bring it up" (Pelham, Christian Science Monitor, 3/9).