Erasmus Prize 2004

Important Figures from the Islamic World Awarded

This year's Erasmus Prize, which is endowed with € 150,000, goes to Sadik Al-Azm, Fatema Mernissi and Abdulkarim Soroush. Martina Sabra spoke to laureate Al-Azm, who currently teaches in Antwerp, Belgium.


Erasmus of Rotterdam

​​"The prize came as a huge surprise to me," says 69-year-old Sadik Al-Azm in his office in Antwerp. His delight is plain to see. "I am very interested in renaissance thinking and I naturally knew a little about Erasmus. To be linked to him in this way is very gratifying for me."

Important contribution to European culture

After the Nobel Prize, the Erasmus Prize is the most important cultural award in the European Union: it is awarded annually to a person or institution that has made an exceptionally important contribution to European culture, society, or social science. The Dutch royal family and the board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation selected "Religion and Modernity" as the theme of this year's prize.

"At present, many people are asking themselves how Islam can be reconciled with modernity. Each in their own way, the sociologist Fatema Mernissi from Morocco, the religious critic Sadik Jalal Al-Azm from Syria, and the Islamic reformist thinker Abdulkarim Soroush from Iran have all helped reconcile processes of modernisation and cultures that are shaped by religion," was the reason given by the foundation in Amsterdam on 7 April 2004 for selecting these laureates.

Modernization is not a one-way street

It went on to say that the debates about Islam and modernity are also very significant for Europe: "In Europe, this debate leads to self-reflection, while western enlightenment, which is generally considered the cradle of modernity, is being critically re-examined. The West realises that modernisation processes may not always follow the same course."

Thanks to numerous translations, the works of Sadik Al-Azm, Fatema Mernissi, and Abdulkarim Soroush are available in Europe. Of the three laureates, Fatema Mernissi (born in 1940) is probably the best known: in the 1970s and 1980s, her books The Political Harem and Beyond the Veil went a long way towards destroying the western cliché of the veiled, oppressed Muslim woman.

Women interpreting Islam themselves

Even back then, Mernissi was a model for many women in the Islamic world: she called on Muslim women to stop letting themselves be controlled by men and to at last start interpreting Islam themselves.

In the early 1990s, Mernissi put feminism aside and began focussing on two main activities: writing novels and strengthening Moroccan civil society. Mernissi considered writing to be the motor of public spirit. She ran numerous free "writers' workshops" for committed men and women.

The focus of these workshops was on a variety of issues relating to men and women in Morocco: rural development, cultural pluralism, human rights, the relations between the sexes, and the sexual abuse of children. Despite the distance that had grown between them, Fatema Mernissi remained an important mentor for the Moroccan women's movement. At all times, she has stressed her identity as both a Moroccan and a Muslim.

Arguing from an Islamic point of view

The Iranian Erasmus laureate Abdulkarim Soroush also argues from an Islamic point of view. Soroush was born Hossein Dabbagh in Teheran in 1945. When he returned to Iran in 1979 upon completing his degree in pharmacy and philosophy in England, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Islamic revolution. One year later, the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, appointed the Islamist activist Soroush to the High Council for the Cultural Revolution.

But the honeymoon period with the ayatollahs was short-lived. In 1982, Soroush resigned from all his offices and became a professor for Islamic Mysticism at the University of Teheran. His criticism of the Islamic clergy became increasingly fierce, not least in the critical monthly magazine he began publishing: Kiyan.

When he called for cultural pluralism and – more or less openly – for the separation of church and state in 1996, Soroush was forced to leave Iran. Since the year 2000, he has taught Islamic philosophy at Harvard University in the United States. In the academic year 200102, he was a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin.

Nevertheless, his ideas are still circulating in Iran: not only in book form, but also as audio cassettes. It is estimated that thousands of Soroush's presentations are in secret circulation in Iran and in neighbouring states.

Separation of church and state

Unlike Abdulkarim Soroush and Fatema Mernissi, Sadik Al-Azm openly calls for the separation of church and state. He does not consider himself to be an Islamic thinker.

However, stresses Al-Azm: "the three of us are all in the same boat: we oppose obscurantism and the amalgamation of political rule and religion. There are many different ways of fighting for more civil rights, women's emancipation, and democracy in general. Fatema Mernissi has her methods, Soroush has his, and I have mine."

The world is flat

Al-Azm explains that it was never personally important for him to reform Islam from the inside out. However, he goes on to say that it is hugely important to him to modernise Islamic theology and Islamic law. "There are Islamic theologians who still claim that the world is flat. Such convictions are simply not compatible with modernity," says Al-Azm, shaking his head.

"The same applies to specific principles in Islamic law: active and passive religious freedom must be guaranteed, as must the freedom from bodily harm and equal rights for women. This means: no accusations of apostasy, no corporal punishment, and no enforced wearing of the veil. If the corresponding passages from the Koran are not cancelled for all time, and if Islamic legal regulations are not annulled, Islam cannot become the foundation on which a modern state apparatus is built, like in Iraq, for example."

Sadik Al-Azm comes from an influential political family in Damascus. His grandfather was a senior civil servant in the Ottoman Empire. His father was a great admirer of Kemal Atatürk, who separated church and state in Turkey.

In the Arab world, on the other hand, religion continued to be used as a means of exercising power even after decolonisation in the 1950s. Sadik Al-Azm put his opposition to this state of affairs down on paper and willingly accepted the consequences: court cases and book bans.

Backing Salman Rushdie

When he took Salman Rushdie's side against Khomeini he even received death threats. Nevertheless, Al-Azm is sure that there is a place for enlightenment in the Islamic world: "In the Muslim world – and especially in the Arab world – de facto secularism is widespread. However, a secular ideology has never developed; nor have secular parties with clearly secular manifestos based on a separation of church and state."

Al-Azm's motto is highly reminiscent of the teachings of French philosopher Descartes and his great model, Immanuel Kant: I think critically, therefore I am. Critical thought and freedom of thought are prerequisites for development and peace. However, the signs in many Arab countries are not at present pointing to liberalisation, democracy, or human rights. This is why left-wing liberal Arab intellectuals like Sadik Al-Azm are searching for alternatives.

Turkey might become a model state

For Al-Azm, Turkey has the potential to become a model. Just how democratic Turkish Islamists really are remains to be seen. But of one thing Sadik Al-Azm is convinced: secular Turkey with an Islamic, democratic party could become a model for the entire Middle East. Says Al-Azm: "If the West is really interested in reinforcing a democratic Islamic model in the Middle East, the EU should support Turkey and take it by the hand."

The official ceremony for the presentation of the Erasmus Prize is due to take place in Amsterdam in November 2004. The Erasmus Prize has been awarded under the patronage of the Dutch royal family every year since 1958. It is given in recognition of achievements in the cultural and social sector. Former laureates include Karl Jaspers, Oskar Kokoschka, Martin Buber, Charles Chaplin, Amnesty International, Vaclav Havel, and Peter Stein.

Martina Sabra
© Qantara.de 2004
Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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