Former Laureates

Fatema Mernissi

Fatema Mernissi


‘Religion and Modernity’ was the theme of the 2004 Erasmus Prize. The choice of three laureates reflects the fact that issues of religion and modernity can be approached in many different ways. The three Islamic thinkers provide a sample of the many routes that can be taken.

With its award of the Erasmus Prize, the Foundation wanted to illustrate the variety of viewpoints that exist in Europe and the Islamic countries regarding modernity and cultures that are shaped by religion.

The Moroccan writer and sociologist Fatema Mernissi (1940) occupied a prominent place in the debate about modernisation in Islamic societies. She herself was born in a harem and studied and wrote about the way Muslim women live and view the world. She shared her information in the form of both scholarly articles and novels. Through her accessible and pictorial style, she became a role model for younger generations. Because she had studied in the West, she was able to draw comparisons and to view both cultures critically. She argued that women must play a full role in the public domain. Fatema Mernissi was the driving force behind the Caravane Civique, a large network of artists, intellectuals and activists. Although not all are literate, all of them can make their voices heard through this organisation. She did sociological research for Unesco, the ilo and the Moroccan government and was associated with the Mohammed V University in Rabat.

Fatema Mernissi passed away on 30 November 2015.


Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

According to the constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation, the Erasmus Prize is awarded to individuals who have made an exceptional contribution to the field of humanities, the social sciences or the arts. The Patron of our organization - His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands - has endorsed the decision of the Board to award this year's Prize to the professors Sadik al-Azm from Syria, Fatema Mernissi from Morocco, and Abdulkarim Soroush from Iran. They share the Prize for their contributions to the societal and intellectual debate on the topic of Religion and Modernity, and it is my pleasure to address the three laureates here, speaking on behalf of our Patron, Prince Bernhard.

Religion and Modernity is the chosen subject area for the Erasmus Prize of 2004. In this debate, the question is raised as to what is the position of religion with regard to modernization processes in society. Our laureates of this year have each contributed to this discussion in a unique way; their views have been controversial and influential, also beyond the borders of their countries of origin.

Let me first make some general observations on the topic of Religion and Modernity, before I turn to the laureates individually.

Religion and Modernity - some general observations

There is a widespread recognition that religions around the world are at this very moment, tragically, all too often a source of murderous violence toward people of other religious backgrounds. Religious authority is being used to validate violent - often ethnic - outbursts and to instigate internecine conflicts in many countries. In recent decades, one can point to religious justifications evoked to pursue genocidal civil war in Sudan, ethnic cleansing in Serbia and Bosnia, religion-based communal warfare in India, Pakistan, and Northern-Ireland, and continuous conflict between Muslims and Jews in Israel and the Middle East.

Extremists of Christian, Jewish or Muslim backgrounds can wreck havoc on the world at large, all with their own God on their side. Whether the stake is oil, territory, power or water: legitimacy for one's behaviour is often sought in religious faith as the ultimate source of truth and the expression of one's perceived cultural identity.

But let us not make the mistake to take only the radical and extremist wings of the different religious traditions as our frame of reference. History demonstrates that for many devout believers religion is also a source of inspiration and consolation, a source of justice, social responsibility and love. How do we achieve that virtues such as tolerance and understanding become the stronger forces in our making of a more peaceful world? How can we achieve that religion is used more as a vehicle for peaceful social transformation and modernization than as an ideology that divides mankind?

To illustrate the relevance and timeliness of our topic, it is tempting here to insert a quote from an unexpected source, Pervez Musharraf, President of Pakistan, published in June this year (Musharraf, 2004):

'I say to my Muslim brethren: the time for a renaissance has come. The way forward goes via the Enlightenment. We must concentrate on the development of human potential by alleviating poverty and by education, health care and social justice. If that is our course, it cannot be realized by confrontation. It is by way of a moderate, reconciling approach that we must fight the wide-spread notion that Islam is a militant religion, incompatible with modernization, democracy and secularism.'

This view will no doubt be shared by many. But whether the way forward will only go via the Enlightenment remains to be seen.

In Western Europe, the public debate about modernity leads to self-reflection, and the Western Enlightenment, generally considered the cradle of modernity, deserves critical re-examination. We are only beginning to realize that modernization processes may not always follow the course of models developed in the West.

This then is the sort of debate our Foundation wishes to stimulate. I continue with some remarks on Islam and the connection with our theme Religion and Modernity.

Religion and Modernity - Islam

Islam is part of Europe and its historical heritage, even though it has had its main distribution in other parts of the world. There are many Europeans today, for instance Turks and Bosnians, who for good reasons would describe their identity as both European and Muslim. A new form of European Islam is growing. Considering global developments in the political and social sphere, the debates on Islam and modernity should be of major concern to us. Even Erasmus would have approved of it.

Our laureates today are eminent, independent thinkers: they have critical and well-argued points of view on political and cultural developments in the Middle East as well as in the Western world, they are willing to meet their opponents in public debate, and have shown great courage in upholding the values of freedom of thought and speech. They are non-dogmatic thinkers who have aired their views in public, in spite of risking thereby to loose their jobs or their safety. By awarding them this year's Erasmus Prize, we hope to achieve that their voice will be heard in even wider circles.

I wish to emphasize that this summary praise of their shared virtues does not imply that all three laureates are soldiers in the same battle. They stand in different traditions and hold different opinions. They write on different topics and for different audiences. What they share is: charisma, courage and optimism - and, as of today, the Erasmus Prize.


Having said that, I will now turn to the laureates in person. I propose to do this in alphabetical order, beginning with professor Sadik al-Azm.

Sadik Jalal Al-Azm

The 'Voltaire of the Arab world', the 'heretic of Damascus' - these are a few of the labels which are being used to characterise the Syrian philosopher, cultural historian and human rights activist Sadik Jalal Al-Azm. These names are suggestive of which mental attitude is typical for this Arab intellectual. For some decennia, Sadik Al-Azm, retired Professor of Modern European Philosophy at the University of Damascus, counts as one of the most prominent intellectuals in the Arab world. From the beginning of his academic career this secular thinker has not shied away from the intellectual and political debate on issues such as the role of the Arab world, contents and meaning of Islam, and the relationship between Arab and Christian culture. Al-Azm combines a broad academic scholarship with the capacity to take up clear positions in the public debate. Ideas and values from western humanistic and enlightened traditions form an important source of inspiration for him. His doctoral dissertation was devoted to one of the most important characters of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant.

One of Al-Azm's first important contributions to the debate on religious thinking was his book 'Self-criticism after the Defeat' in which he made an incisive analysis of the factors which had led to the Arab defeat in the 1967 War with Israel, factors such as uncritically holding on to traditions and religious transmissions, a lack of understanding for the position of the individual, and a leaning towards fatalism. According to some, his analysis at that time has not lost its value at present. His publications are testimony that the author dares to take up critical positions, without caring too much about political and intellectual taboos. This also became apparent later in the Rushdie affair, in which he defended the author of The Satanic Verses.

Interestingly, Al-Azm compares Islamic fundamentalism with expressions of fundamentalism in Christianity. He regards extremist acts of violence as the last death spasms of a mentality that realises its final hour has come, rather than as impulses for a new movement or a new era. According to Al-Azm, modernity will have the same effects on Islam as it has had on Christianity in Europe: That is, religion will be driven out of the public domain to end up as a private affair. The comparative approach, by which he compares European cultural history with that of the Arab world, with voltairian irony, with an incisive mind, and seemingly effortless, all this makes him a very interesting thinker. We hope that more of his work will become available in Western languages.


I now turn to Professor Fatema Mernissi.

Fatema Mernissi

In the debate about modernisation in Islamic societies, the Moroccan author and sociologist Fatema Mernissi occupies a prominent position. She has made a special effort to study the living conditions of Muslim women and expose their vision of the world. This she considers important both for themselves and for the outside world, which she deems to be one-sidedly permeated by the male discourse.

By publication of her interviews and studies of Moroccan women in various societal positions - studies which have appeared in many languages and countries - she has made the voice heard of what she considers the subjected and discriminated half of the population. By writing in an accessible, evocative style, Fatema Mernissi has reached a very broad audience and has become a role model for younger generations. She argues that women should fulfil their full role in the public sphere. Thanks to her thorough familiarity with Western cultures she is also able to make comparisons with Western views on womanhood and question the pretended Western feeling of superiority. Mernissi emphasises that in the West, too, women are manipulated and exploited, because the female body is often used as a commercialised sex object.

Already in her first books she emphatically pleaded for emancipation of women. Her books, most of which first appeared in English or French, and afterwards in many other translations, have been distributed very widely, especially also in Islamic countries. The special merit of Mernissi is that she has systematically investigated forms of repression of Muslim women, studying them from inside the institute of the harem, and subjected the results to discussion. Her ethnographic descriptions are extraordinary and of priceless value, as the harem she describes does no longer exist in present-day Morocco. In the mid 90s Mernissi broadened the focus of her work to the influence of satellite and internet on society. Through a growing international network entitled 'Caravane civique' she is empowering a broad group of artists, activists, intellectuals, as well as illiterate people from remote rural areas in Morocco, with the goal to strengthen civil society. As professor of sociology in Rabat, influential teacher and author, she has greatly helped to raise consciousness of the sort of tensions that come with modernisation. She has become a role model for the modern Moroccan woman, who is open to the values of emancipation, and stands firm in asserting her identity.


I now turn to our third laureate professor Abdulkarim Soroush.

Abdulkarim Soroush

One of the best-known reformers in Iran is the renowned religious intellectual, Abdulkarim Soroush, who in his own country is both popular and controversial. He tries to combine insights from Western philosophy and social science with a tolerant perception of the Islamic creed. Sometimes he is named 'the Luther of Islam'.  'Erasmus of Islam' would seem to be a more appropriate title, given Erasmus' decision not to break with the church as Luther did. When one envisages the conditions in Iran after the 1979 revolution, one cannot but be impressed by Soroush' well-considered and courageous ideas to reconcile Islam with modern ideas on human rights and democracy.

A broad scholar in many fields, such as pharmacology, history and philosophy of science, he developed a thorough knowledge in the field of Koran interpretation and Persian poetry. His major works attempt to give a new interpretation of the shari'a in the light of new insights in the field of jurisprudence, hermeneutics and sociology of knowledge. We hope that more of his work will become available in Western languages.

Characteristic for Soroush' thinking is a vision in which he attempts to reconcile the three cultures of Iran: The national tradition, which is going back to times before the introduction of Islam in the eighth century, the Islamic creed, and the Western body of thought. All three are part of the heritage of present-day Iran, according to Soroush, who takes issue with the idea of a pure culture, free of foreign influences. When one thinks on these lines, one has to reject Islam to begin with, because it came from outside Iran. In his view, nothing is entitled to a self-evident devotion just because it has come into existence on one's own soil, and none of the three cultures which form the richness of Iran must be allowed to dominate: Neither the nationalists, who want to destroy all Arab influences, nor those who blindly wish to imitate the West, nor the unskilled followers of Islam.

In their confrontation with Western civilisation, many Muslims hold on to Islam as an identity that excludes others, according to Soroush. Soroush tries to forge a link between various notions from the social sciences, which in post-revolutionary Iran were condemned as Western corruption, and his thinking about Islam.

All of this sounds similar to the programmes of reformist thinkers within other religions, where a historical interpretation of transmitted traditions with hermeneutic means forms the starting point of a modernisation process. Within the Islamic tradition Soroush goes as far as possible in reconciling religion with democracy: 'The heart of a religious society is a freely chosen belief; it is not in force and adaptation.'


May I now ask that all three laureates please come forward together, so I can adorn you with the ornaments belonging to the Erasmus Prize.


Ceric, M., 2004. Judaism, Christianity, Islam: Hope or Fear of Our Times. pp. 43-56 in: Beyond Violence. Religious Sources of Social Transformation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, ed. by J.L. Heft, S.M. Fordham University Press, New York.

Goody, J., 2004. Islam in Europe. Polity, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Greenberg, I., 2004. Religion as a Force for Reconciliation and Peace: A Jewish Analysis. pp. 88-112 in: Beyond Violence. Religious Sources of Social Transformation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, ed. by J.L. Heft, S.M. Fordham University Press, New York.

Heft, J.L., 2004. Introduction: Religious Sources for Social Transformation in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. pp. 1-14 in: Beyond Violence. Religious Sources of Social Transformation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, ed. by J.L. Heft, S.M. Fordham University Press, New York.

Musharraf, P., 2004. Verlichte Gematigdheid kan de wereld redden. NRC Handelsblad, 2 juni, p. 7.


Born in Fez (Morocco) in 1940, Fatema Mernissi studied political sciences at the University of Rabat, the Sorbonne in Paris and Brandeis University (Massachusetts). She published several books on the position of women in the rapidly changing Muslim communities in Morocco. Raised in the harem of a well-to-do businessman in Fez, she had the possibility to describe this institution from the inside.

In 1975 she published the result of her first fieldwork: Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. In 1985/87 a revised edition followed in which she added an extensive consideration on the social changes that had taken place since her first investigation.

Already in her first books she expressly spoke for the emancipation of women. Since then most of her work was originally published in English or French. It has been translated in many languages and is widely read, also in Islamic countries. In the 80s of the last century she directed sociological research for UNESCO, ILO and UNFPA (Population Fund). This resulted in a book with selected interviews: Doing daily battle, 1988 (Le Maroc raconté par ses femmes, 1983).

In the mid 90s Fatema Mernissi stopped working on women's issues and switched to civil society as her major topic. She served as a member in many national, pan-Arabic and international forums on women and development in the Islamic world. She was Lecturer of Sociology at the Mohammed V University of Rabat, and Research Scholar at the University Institute of Scientific Research.

Fatema Mernissi passed away on 30 November 2015