Erasmus Prize awarded to Islamic thinkers

November 2004 -

In November, three Islamic thinkers were awarded the Erasmus Prize 2004. They are Sadik Jalal Al-Azm from Syria, Fatema Mernissi from Morocco and Abdulkarim Soroush from Iran. The theme of this year's award was 'Religion and modernity'. The prizewinners are all very involved in the modernisation processes going on within Islam.

Fatema Mernissi is famous for such works as her Beyond the veil book published in 1975 about the role of the woman in the Islamic world. She is an important figure in the Moroccan women's rights movement and for many years now has been organising writing workshops based on the Civil Society model. A major theme of her current work as a sociologist is the impact of satellite television and the Internet on Islamic society and on the woman's role in it.

Abdulkarim Soroush is an Islamic who champions cultural diversity, democracy and human rights from a religious perspective. For him, this does not mean secularism but instead a democratic society founded on religious principles. For instance, he does not oppose the sharia, advocating instead a new interpretation based on the principles of human rights. After years of exile he has now returned to Iran. He has been called 'the Martin Luther King of Islam'.

Sadik Jalal Al-Azm's field of activity is the area of tension between orthodox ideology and modern reality. He argues that in practice the Arabian world is very secular, but that this secularism lacks ideological underpinning and embedding in law. He sees today's extremism as a last-ditch stand against this secularism. Al-Azm is emeritus professor of Modern European Philosophy at the University of Damascus.

The Erasmus Prize is awarded each year to a person or institution that from a European perspective has made an extraordinarily important contribution in a cultural, social or socio-scientific field.