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 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.