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Habermas and the contradictions of the Arab intellectual

By Thursday 9 December 2021 No Comments
Habermas, the Sheikh Zayed Award and Arab reactions
Habermas and the contradictions of the Arab intellectual

By  Islam Anwar

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.

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.

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 the 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

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 maneuver 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.”

The principles of the intellectual

The thorny relationship between the intellectual and the establishment, especially in undemocratic societies, to which Sherif referred, may explain the attacks on the German philosopher. Habermas’s announcement of his refusal of the award unintentionally created a deep wound around the independence of the Arab intellectual. Some practitioners in the Arabic cultural scene felt that his stance was directed at them personally and not at the ruling elite in the UAE.

At a time of turmoil and fraught with anxiety and anger, some intellectuals who supported the Emirati regime were angry and they rushed to accuse Habermas of “giving in” to the pressures of the left-wing press. This came after the German newspaper “Der Spiegel” published an article on its website criticizing him for being selected for an award by a country whose ruling regime depends on “repression and the absence of democracy”.

The power of symbolism: “I hope that Habermas’s stance will lead to heightened awareness of the dangers which politicised prizes represent to the freedoms of researchers and creative thinkers; whatever their field, they will become more protective of their own freedom, integrity and independence,” says Imad Abdul-Latif, professor of rhetoric and discourse analysis at Cairo University

The German philosopher’s response came swiftly in the form of a brief letter via his publishing house to Der Spiegel which was published on the evening of 2 May 2021: “I had announced my willingness to accept this year’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award. This decision was wrong, and I am here to correct it. I did not fully understand the very close connection between the institution which awards these prizes in Abu Dhabi and the political regime there.”

The German philosopher was not alone in turning down prizes financed by the Emirati regime. A number of Arab intellectuals have already done so, including the Moroccan poet Mohammed Bennis. He withdrew in 2020 from the scientific committee of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in protest at the UAE government’s decision to normalise relations with Israel. The protest was also aimed at its withdrawal of support for the right of the Palestinian people to achieve a just settlement guaranteeing the restoration of occupied lands as well as the right of return for millions of Palestinians living in the Diaspora for decades.

A call in support of independence: Habermas’s rejection of the Sheikh Zayed Award, the most important event in the cultural history of the UAE”

“Most of the official awards and honours in the Arab world work on the principle of the carrot dangling in front of the donkey; that is, they are a means to ensure the loyalty of those who wish to receive them, to encourage them into supporting the donor regimes, or at least into remaining silent about their practices. This includes avoiding criticism of any form of alliance with the ‘forces of occupation’ i.e. Israel, as well as avoiding criticism of oppression, corruption, racism, manipulation, discrimination, control, and any other types of abuses which exist across the Arab world, from the Mediterranean to the Gulf,” says Imad Abdul-Latif, professor of rhetoric and discourse analysis at Cairo University.

Abdul-Latif explains the importance of the symbolic stance which Habermas and other intellectuals have taken by turning down politicized prizes: “I hope that Habermas’s stance will lead to heightened awareness of the dangers which politicized prizes represent to the freedoms of researchers and creative thinkers; whatever their field, they will become more protective of their own freedom, integrity, and independence. Thus, they will only write to satisfy their own human and professional consciences. If they are recognized or rewarded, they will receive their awards with a clear conscience, and if they aren’t, they will have no regrets.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/5DodKwZQch0 

In this context, the novelist and publisher Shady Lewis Botros points out that “among the hundreds and perhaps thousands of those who have won the Emirati Awards, Habermas’s rejection of the prize will have the biggest impact. The paradox is that it may be the most important event in the cultural history of the UAE.” He goes on to explain that there is a long list of writers who were hounded because of their writings and public stances, and who spent their lives between exile and prison; many even lost their lives because of what they wrote.

“I am not asking Arab writers to be killed, imprisoned, or subjected to suffering in any way, only that we do not accept prizes or money from child killers, war criminals, usurpers, supporters of colonisation and settlement, leaders of military coups, or from those regimes which practise apartheid and mass killings. If art and literature make writers stretch out their hands to murderers, occupiers and criminal regimes, let us stop writing and put an end to this farce and tragedy,” Lewis Botros says in conversation with Qantara.

Islam Anwar

© Qantara.de 2021

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton