Habermas, philosopher of communication, rejects dialogue

Philosopher Juergen Habermas was due to be awarded a major Arab prize in Abu Dhabi, but has turned it down following criticism. This decision torpedoes Arab efforts at a substantive cultural dialogue and exposes the West’s moral hubris, says Stefan Weidner

Essay by Stefan Weidner

Recently, a mood of optimism has been spreading through the Gulf region: Saudi Arabia is talking to its arch enemy Iran; the Gulf States are ending the isolation of the unruly emirate of Qatar. A few of them have even made peace with Israel, often in the face of resistance from their own population.

And now, the general political thaw was to be topped with a dollop of cultural whipped cream: the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, given annually at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and worth more than 225,000 Euros, was conferred on 91-year-old Juergen Habermas – the doyen of contemporary German philosophy and the last great exponent of “critical theory” in the tradition of Horkheimer and Adorno.

You might almost think that the failed Arab revolutions of 2011 were now, ten years later, to be revived as a process of cautious reform by the very powers that did their utmost to choke off the revolution ten years ago.

The role model for this process could be Bismarck, who once suppressed social democracy, only to then implement important parts of its manifesto himself. One way or another, for many observers the protests on the "Maidans", public squares all the way from Kiev to Cairo, marked the "structural transformation of the public sphere" that Habermas wrote about – now, at last, happening outside the Western centres as well.

A star philosopher for the revolutionaries

Habermas is certainly not unknown in the Arab world, then – nor in Iran. Many of his books have been translated; young, revolutionary Arab intellectuals have scrambled to bag interviews with him; and his name and fundamental ideas are known to all scholars. The idea of communicative action in place of raw power politics, for instance, or the legitimation of institutions and processes through rational discourse. 

Habermas represents values and ideas of a critically renewed Enlightenment – something that may be increasingly under threat in the West, in the age of the internet and media polarisation, though in the Arab world it still retains its lustre. It is even propagated by autocrats at the head of absolutist regimes, be it as a defence against political Islam and its theocratic claims to power, or in order to find common ground and a common language with the political culture of Europe and the USA.

@suhrkamp versendet folgende Mitteilung von Jürgen Habermas: „Ich habe meine Bereitschaft erklärt, den diesjährigen Sheikh Zayed Book Award anzunehmen. Das war eine falsche Entscheidung, die ich hiermit korrigiere. Die sehr enge Verbindung der Institution, die diese Preise in ...

— Knut Cordsen (@CordsenKnut) May 2, 2021


Meaningful co-operation

Economically, these commonalities already exist: the Frankfurt Book Fair has been working with the Book Fair in Abu Dhabi for many years. Juergen Boos, the president and CEO of the Frankfurt Book Fair, is a member of the “Scientific Committee” of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award.

The Litprom association linked to the Book Fair, which promotes literatures from outside Europe, including many Arabic books, also receives funds from Abu Dhabi. Such support is not scandalous. Germany, France or Israel also finance the promotion of their literature abroad. And critical, progressive books certainly don’t get short-changed in the process. This year, the Zayed Prize’s literary category was awarded to the Egyptian author Iman Mirsal, whose unsparing feminist poems are infamous.

Prizes for other Germans

Nor is Juergen Habermas the first German to be recognised with one of the many Zayed prizes: in 2018, Dag Nikolaus Hasse, Professor of the History of Philosophy at the University of Würzburg, was one of the lucky recipients. He was awarded the prize in the “Arabic culture in other languages” category, for his book on the reception of Arab philosophy in the Renaissance. I myself was on the 2020 shortlist, for my literary history book 1001 Buch. The translator from Arabic Hartmut Faehndrich and many other Europeans and Americans have received prizes with large sums attached in the Gulf, without anyone getting agitated about it. So why now?

Juergen Boos, Director of Frankfurt Fair, is a member of the "Scientific Committee" of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (photo: Michael Debets/Picture-alliance/Pacific Press)
Jürgen Boos, Direktor der Frankfurter Messe, ist Mitglied im „Wissenschaftlichen Komitee“ des „Sheikh Zayed Book Award“. „Zwar akzeptiere ich natürlich Herrn Habermas‘ Entscheidung. Die Verleihung dieses Preises an ihn wäre jedoch ein Anlass gewesen, sein bedeutendes Werk und seine Positionen im arabischen Kulturraum noch bekannter zu machen und damit die Auseinandersetzung der arabischen Gesellschaft mit seinem Werk zu fördern“, so der Boos.

Cultural appropriation?

The reason is that Habermas is a symbolic figure for how the West sees itself. It is the fact that he thoroughly embodies critical German philosophy. And when Arabs now invoke Habermas themselves through this prize, many people here in Germany see it as unjust cultural appropriation. The Arab world wants to make the philosophy of the Enlightenment and critical theory its own. Can it do that, does it have a right to?

These are questions of cultural hegemony we are dealing with here: who is permitted to speak in whose name? The insinuation is that Habermas is merely being misused for propaganda purposes.

Admittedly, there would have been some danger of that. But isn’t every benefactor of a prize also promoting himself? Let us be under no illusions about this: most prizes are awarded for precisely this reason. But giving this particular prize to Habermas would have been more than that. From now on, our diplomacy would have been able to measure Emirati politics against the standards of our best philosopher. Standards, admittedly, that Western societies also hardly ever meet.

Cancel Culture meets German Angst

Habermas must also have seen the opportunity here, or he wouldn’t have accepted the prize at the start of April. It is hard to believe that it took an article in Der Spiegel to enlighten him on the problematic aspects of politics in the Gulf. A few hours after the article with the headline “Juergen Habermas and Emirati propaganda” was published by Speigel Online, Habermas withdrew. Whatever his motives may have been: he has done a disservice to the cultural dialogue for which he has always stood up, even going to Iran for it in 2002. Instead of rebuffing the criticism, Habermas succumbed with over-hasty obedience to “cancel culture”. German angst is what it’s called in English, when someone doesn’t want to stand up for himself.

Author and Islamic scholar Stefan Weidner in Istanbul 2020 (photo: Viktor Burgi)
Die „Causa Habermas“ ist ein Lehrstück für die moralische Überheblichkeit des Westens: „Die Kultur soll ein moralischer geläuterter Bezirk sein, während Macht und Geschäftsinteressen sich gehen lassen dürfen. Diese Doppelmoral ist das Markenzeichen westlicher Politik“, schreibt Stefan Weidner.

Double standards, both here and there

It is both good and reasonable to criticise the Emirates’ aggressive foreign policy and repressive domestic policy. At the same time, it is self-righteous and naive not to differentiate between the actors and concerns of cultural and power politics respectively. The western states, Germany first and foremost, are as two-faced in their approach to this as the Gulf states are: while for example the progressive Arab activists, artists and intellectuals are supported by our Goethe Instituts, politicians and business leaders go on making questionable deals and inhumane refugee agreements with the same regimes that are oppressing the German-supported activists – Egypt, for example.

Culture is supposed to be an area led by morality, while power and business interests are allowed to let these considerations slide. This double standard has been the hallmark of western politics since, in the days of colonialism, missionaries were sent out into the world to preach a Christian morality that was then trampled underfoot by the colonial rulers. Today, the mechanisms of this double standard have become more subtle, but they function in a similar way. It is just that they are now also being copied by the formerly colonised states. 

The Habermas case is a lesson on the moral hubris of the West. And the impossibility of Arabs and Muslims ever being able to please this West. The whole footballing world allowed itself to be bought by Qatar without any audible criticism. But it would seem that not even making peace with Israel qualifies Abu Dhabi to give Juergen Habermas a prize. What more do we want from them?

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2021

Stefan Weidner is an author and Islamic studies expert. His most recent publication is: Ground Zero. 9/11 und die Geburt der Gegenwart. Hanser Verlag (2021). His book 1001 Buch. Die Literaturen des Orients (Edition Converso 2019) was shortlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2020.


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