Habermas, the Sheikh Zayed Award and Arab reactions

Habermas and the contradictions of the Arab intellectual

Uproar, fuss and mutual accusation: following the German philosopher Juergen Habermas' rejection of the 2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award, the social media posts by those involved in the Arabic cultural scene covered a broad spectrum. Islam Anwar takes a look for Qantara

The ongoing debate has been triggered by three main standpoints: one supports the stance of the well-known German philosopher Juergen Habermas; a second view rejects his stance and considers it "fake heroism"; a third view respects Habermas’ stance, but doesn’t view the rejection of such prizes as acts of heroism, nor does it condemn those who accept them.

The criticism of Habermas's position centre on a set of assumptions, claims, and questions: Would Habermas have rejected the prize had the USA or Israel awarded it? How do Western intellectuals deal with the hypocrisy of their own governments, which support so many undemocratic regimes? In most cultural sectors, the financial returns are barely adequate. In consequence, practitioners of the arts need both financial and moral support from research institutes, universities, or governments from the First World or the Third. According to this viewpoint, everyone is in the same boat, and turning down prizes is nothing but bogus heroism.

The intellectual and the establishment

In an attempt to untangle this clash and to answer these questions, researcher and translator Hebba Sherif, former director of the Swiss Cultural Foundation "Pro Helvetia" in Cairo, points out that "Habermas's stand in declining the Sheikh Zayed Award has raised many questions about intellectuals, their role, their responsibilities, their rights, their duties and their humanitarian and professional consciences."

"There are different ways to describe what an intellectual is. Is he what Gramsci would describe as the organic intellectual, meaning the intellectual who belongs to his class and defends its interests? Or is he the traditional intellectual of the sort embodied by Edward Said, among others? That is, someone with a special sensitivity and ability to contemplate the nature of the universe and the rules which govern societies, in a quest to understand the wider connotations of practical situations in daily life.

Researcher and translator Heba Sherif, former director of the Swiss Cultural Foundation "Pro Helvetia" in Cairo (source: visegradsummerchool.org)
Principles are paramount: "Habermas has no other choice than to refuse the award. He is a staunch defender of democracy and his research work revolves around democracy and secularism as a necessary product of modernity. Were he to accept an award from a source linked to an undemocratic regime, it would be anathema to his ideas," says Sherif

Should we expect the intellectual to be the one to adopt revolutionary standpoints, or is he the one who asks questions and nothing more? Or is he the one who tries to dissect and analyse the normal, everyday political discourse?" asks Sherif.

In her interview with Qantara, she adds: "Looking at history, we find that there have always been patrons for arts and culture, including for creative talents, poets of the court or palace, painters of kings and churches such as Michelangelo, as well as singers enjoying the patronage of princes or the wealthy. In fact, creative talents have always been under the patronage of someone, be they the establishment, the very rich, or those whose passion for arts or literature made them spend money on growing the talent pool."

Sherif explains how this association, which may debase creative types, because it puts them in a direct relationship with and at the mercy of those with money, ended with the creation of the modern state ("in which the state’s funds became the people's funds, raised from their taxes. Thus, any awards which creative types receive from government, from writing articles in national newspapers, or from attending state-run festivals do not put them in a 'degrading' position vis a vis the rich, because there is no direct relationship between them.")

Sherif goes on: "In despotic countries, however, the people’s money is controlled by the ruling regime, which makes the intellectual a tool in the hands of the regime to promote its policies. The situation in which the intellectual finds himself also differs in consumer societies where the power of the tycoons who own publishing houses and the media gives them control over the intellectual. That said, the many and different sources of capital, coupled with the freedom of expression guaranteed in the constitution and the legal framework, have given creative practitioners greater choices. It has also brought them more room to manoeuvre as well as pressure to speak their minds freely, or at least to stick on more familiar ground."

Hebba Sherif concludes by saying: "Habermas has no other choice than to refuse the award. He is a staunch defender of democracy and his research work revolves around democracy and secularism as a necessary product of modernity. Were he to accept an award from a source linked to an undemocratic regime, it would be anathema to his ideas."

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