When mind and power meet – Jürgen Habermas‘ decision against the 225,000 Euro prize from Abu Dhabi

Jürgen Habermas originally wanted to accept a highly valuable (in terms of cash) book prize of the United Arab Emirates, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, which was to be awarded to him with the distinction „Cultural Person of the Year“. More generally, this literary award includes annual rewards to „Arab writers, intellectuals, publishers, as well as young talents whose writings and translations have scholarly and objectively enriched Arab cultural, literary and social life.“ The main prize, one million dirhams (225,000 euros), is surely a lot of money. Probably the most important living German-speaking philosopher must have thought so, too. In fact, it is one of the most highly endowed awards for authors given anywhere in the world. Can a philosopher afford to turn down so much money, even if it comes from a state and government official that stands against the vast majority of the values of the communicative enlightenment that Habermas so strongly and committedly championed throughout his life? Freedom of expression and tolerance of criticism are surely among the most important values Habermas stands for. Abu Dhabi and its government officials, like so many countries in the Middle (Islamic) East, on the other hand, stand for the lack of freedom for people who are critical of the government and freely express their criticism, that is, for the systematic suppression of independent public opinion, and against any democratic pretensions. As in Europe before the late 18th century (and in some cases far beyond), the rulers there see themselves in a world in which they have absolute rights and governing powers via natura.

Incidentally, this is also particularly clear in the scientific field: natural scientists in particular were among those persecuted in the 18th century, and if you look at the number of Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry or medicine who come from Islamic countries today, you can quickly answer why this number is so limited. To date, just two scientific Nobel Prize winners have come from the Islamic cultural sphere: Abdus Salam, Pakistan, Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979, and Ahmed Zewail, Egypt, Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999.

Habermas initially overlooked the problems associated with the award of this prize and even emphasized how good it was that his books were also translated into Arabic and thus had an influence on philosophical thought there. In doing so, as he himself said, he had been strongly influenced by Jürgen Boos, the director of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Thus, Habermas himself says that Boos „dispelled concerns that were obvious.“ It was probably only after reading a SPIEGEL article that he changed his mind. So, while he says that money (or power) usually gets the upper hand, this is only in the short term. Literally, he wrote: „Today’s SPIEGEL article on this subject ends with the sentence. ‚Usually, when mind and power clash, power wins.‘ In the short term, yes; but in the longer term, I believe in the enlightening power of the critical word, if only it reaches the light of political publicity. For this, my books, thankfully translated into Arabic, are also sufficient.“

Such words weigh heavily historically, and a look at history shows the depth they can have. For it was the articulation of openly critical words to those in power during the Enlightenment, as difficult as they were and with what unpleasant consequences they were associated for their utterers, that made possible both the American and French revolutions, the most significant practical steps into modern democracy. It is no surprise, then, that Habermas received high praise for his words of rejection of the prize, even from Der Spiegel itself. The reporter there, Dietmar Pieper, wrote in a commentary of his own, „Habermas has shown himself to be open to new information and arguments – something that many people find difficult. In a 91-year-old who has produced a monumental life’s work, this undiminished intellectual agility seems sensational.“

But this insight is just not always so easy, even for Habermas. In today’s world, proximity to dictators even in distant foreign countries is often not very far and getting involved and benefiting significantly from it financially can be tempting. It is good that Habermas refused the offer from Abu Dhabi at the last moment.

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