A triumph for discourse

Juergen Habermas' rejection of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award

After at first agreeing to accept the grand prize as "Cultural Personality of the Year" in the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, Juergen Habermas then decided to decline the honour. A commentary by Reinhard Schulze

The rejection of the prize awarded by the United Arab Emirates has sparked quite a controversy and even been linked to the debate on "cancel culture".

Some argue that it is wrong to decline the award because this indicates a failure to recognise the Emirates' reform efforts; because such a rejection pretends to a freedom from the double standards that characterise political cooperation; because even reforms introduced by absolutist rulers can have positive effects; because Arabs have just as much right to read the works of Juergen Habermas as those in the West; because prizes always connote self-praise by their sponsor; because other famous personalities have also accepted prizes from the Gulf States; and because dialogue is more important than the self-righteous "cancel culture" of the West.

Who is honouring whom?

The first argument concerns the political context behind the Zayed Award. Some say that the UAE's foreign, cultural and anti-Islamism policies betray signs of cautious reforms and opening in the principalities. This raises the question: who is honouring whom here? Does the prize honour the laureate, or does the laureate honour the sponsor's reform policies by accepting?

In reality, the current politics in the UAE are anything but reformist. The interventions in Libya and Yemen, for example, are far more than just military adventures. They instead underpin a foreign policy strategy aimed at establishing a new Arab security architecture against Iran and Turkey, in which the Emirates are setting the tone together with Saudi Arabia.

Part of the strategy is the new alliance with Israel. At least this alliance has vanquished the bane of anti-Semitism from the state-controlled media in the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. So much for the good news; the bad news is that this rapprochement has not erased from people's minds the ingrained anti-Semitism that has taken root in the public sphere since the 1960s. A critical partnership with Israel would be more credible if cultural policies would at the same time address this fossilised anti-Semitism and take measures to overcome it.

 

The award in the context of neo-nationalist cultural policy

However, the Emirates' cultural policy is clearly heading in a different direction. It combines the aspiration to make the Emirates the embodiment of a global culture on the one hand with a sentimental and nostalgic Arabism on the other. The Emirates want to give shape and expression to this Arabism and yet at the same time take on the status of patron of global culture. It is therefore no coincidence that the Zayed Award always selects as its "cultural personality of the year" someone who represents this global culture, this time in the form of Juergen Habermas, who was henceforward to be protected and promoted by the Emirates.

The Emirates see as their greatest adversaries all organisations and groups that view Islam as a secular order, chief among them of course the Muslim Brotherhood. Such groups are ridiculed as relics of bygone times and at the same time furiously opposed. Promoted instead is an Islamic orthodoxy, provided it renounces any political pretensions. This Islamic orthodoxy is seen as part of the new nostalgic Arabism and reduced to the function of a symbolic cultural system of the Emirati "nation" represented by the princes.

There is no autonomous, discursively self-administering civic sphere, and journalistic freedom is to a large degree restricted. Emirati journalist Ahmad Mansoor, who won the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2015, has been in prison again since 2017, serving a 10-year sentence for allegedly using social media platforms to threaten public order and publish false and misleading information.

Current policies in the Emirates thus largely rule out any opening up within society or social change. Only 10% of the population in the seven principalities are considered citizens, while 90% are foreigners or stateless persons (bidun). And only 7% are deemed to be Arab members of the titular nation.

The award and the weak legitimacy of the princes

Like most awards, the Zayed Award is also a mark of distinction for its sponsor. There is nothing inherently dishonourable about that. Things become problematic, however, when, as in Abu Dhabi, such self-adulation serves primarily to enhance the legitimacy of the ruling order through external recognition. Since only a very small minority of people in the country have any function at all as subjects that can legitimise the rule of the princes, a large portion of the population is politically and culturally functionless.

The legitimacy of the princes thus rests on very weak shoulders, which is why they strive to compensate for the lack of an internal basis of legitimacy through increased acknowledgement from the outside. And, as with the numerous principalities in the age of European absolutism, the princes on the Arabian Peninsula can also get ahead in the competition to secure legitimacy from the outside by obtaining prestigious objects. In Abu Dhabi, this includes the "Arab Louvre" and also the Zayed Award, which spotlights the "book" as the route to legitimacy.

Many have already been honoured with this award. In 2003, for example, the 8th President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, received this highest state award in the Emirates. Zayed Award winners in the "cultural personality" category include the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf (2016), Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui (2017), Arabists Yaroslav and Suzanne Stetkevych (2019), and Palestinian author Salma Khadra Al Jayyusi (2020).

 SWP study Regional Power United Arab Emirates (photo: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik)
Abu Dhabi is emerging from Saudi Arabia's shadow: since the Arab Spring of 2011, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been pursuing an increasingly active foreign and security policy and have emerged as a leading regional power. The rise of the UAE to a regional power has made the country a more important and simultaneously a more problematic policy partner for Germany and Europe, argues Guido Steinberg in his study on "Regional Power United Arab Emirates"

Enlightened absolutism in the Gulf?

All of the award-winners to date have had a direct connection to the Arab world. With Juergen Habermas, however, a personality has been chosen for this year's prize who has a pronounced legitimising function. To a certain extent, this has made the award more international, a move that corresponds quite closely to the efforts of the royal house of Abu Dhabi to gain the broadest possible worldwide recognition. Juergen Habermas's oeuvre would seem to be ideally suited for this purpose. One might ask, though, why potentates would choose a personality whose work entails a radical critique of discourses of power, when their own actions as rulers run counter to precisely what the honouree has deemed necessary for the success of a society.

Do the princes want to show that they have now become advocates of an "enlightened absolutism", endeavouring to reform the Leviathan of the state to such an extent that it becomes a beacon for Arab enlightenment? Are they trying to shift the weight of their project onto the shoulders of giants?

But an enlightened absolutism 2.0 would require broad legitimacy that goes far beyond a public sphere controlled by the royal court. This legitimacy, the princes realise, can only be obtained internationally. And if international recognition is tantamount to support for their foreign and security policy strategy, then that is certainly worth the prize money.

Refusing to condone such a strategy is by no means an expression of "cancel culture". There are often good reasons for honourees to turn down awards. This was the case in 2008, for example, when literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki refused to accept the honorary prize of the German Television Award, and in 2011, when Juan Goytisolo from Spain refused to accept the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights. Jean-Paul Sartre seems to have had less cogent reasons for turning down the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964. But in any case, the reasons that lead someone to decline an award should be appreciated and respected. It harms no one, unless you regard the awardee as a sovereign subject of the prize sponsor. So let's wait and see if Juergen Habermas takes the opportunity to explain his motives.

Not a question of double standards

The Islamic scholar Reinhard Schulze works at the University of Bern. Since 2018, he has been the director of FINO, the "Forum Islam and Middle East", at the University (photo: private)
Dialogue on equal terms: "It is precisely because international relations are so rife with double standards that it is necessary to create cultural and scientific realms in which the claim can be made to address human rights violations, freedom of the press and freedom of religion on an equal footing and based on an equal rationale," writes Reinhard Schulze

The argument that culture cannot be kept free of the double standards of politics, which is willing to prioritise economic interests over the demand for human rights, may seem disturbing. In the final analysis, this means that awards such as the aforementioned Al-Gaddafi Prize for Human Rights would also have to be recognised. I believe that the awards culture in particular poses a major challenge, as it can quickly be exploited in an almost extortionate manner to gain legitimacy and recognition. This was evident in some of the reactions to Juergen Habermas's refusal of the award. The Catholic Bishop for the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, Paul Hinder, described the rejection of the invitation to accept the prize as an "insult" to its sponsor. This makes one wonder whether, as an award winner, one automatically has some sort of obligation towards the donor?

It is precisely because international relations are so rife with double standards that it is necessary to create cultural and scientific realms in which the claim can be made to address human rights violations, freedom of the press and freedom of religion on an equal footing and based on an equal rationale. When someone like Juergen Habermas calls for this so urgently, relying on the power of words, then we can rightly expect that receiving an award will also be evaluated from this standpoint.

Not a case of arrogance

Therefore, it is not arrogance on the part of the West to reject this prize, if only because Juergen Habermas is not the West and the prize is not the Arab world. We should keep our feet firmly planted on the ground and not speak here of a new culture war. An honouree has exercised his right to ask who is honouring him and then decide whether to accept that honour.

His rejection of the award is in keeping with the work of Juergen Habermas. Social media reactions coming from Arab countries indicate that the majority welcomes Habermas's decision; some have even expressed relief because the refusal to accept the award accomplishes two things at once: for one thing, the awards committee has recognised and manifested the prize-worthiness of Juergen Habermas's work for the Arab world. Arabic editions of his works will surely become more widespread. Secondly, Habermas himself has shown that, despite the honour, he has stood by his critical principles and arrived at a decision that is consistent for him, and he has done so in a political environment where every honour is subject to the suspicion of being corrupt.

Reinhard Schulze

© Journal21/Reinhard Schulze/Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Berlin in 1953 and received his doctorate in 1981 after studying Islamic Studies, Linguistics and Romance Studies at the University of Bonn. After his habilitation in 1976, he held professorships at the universities of Bochum and Bamberg, and worked as a full professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Bern from 1995 to 2018. Since 2018, he has headed the transdisciplinary Forum Islam and the Middle East (FINO) there.

 

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