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.
"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 02, he was a-Harvard
University in the United States. In the academic year 2001 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
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
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
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
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
© Qantara.de 2004
Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan