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 Professor 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.
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.