DUBAI – The organizers of a high-priced literary award from the United Arab Emirates expressed regret Monday that prominent German philosopher Juergen Habermas had shunned the prestigious prize over political concerns. The rebuke dealt a blow to the sheikhdom's attempts to promote the capital as a tolerant, cultural cornerstone.
The 91-year-old German, considered his country's most eminent contemporary philosopher, announced earlier this week that he would not accept the Sheikh Zayed Book Award due to its ties “with the existing political system” in the UAE, a hereditarily ruled country long criticized for its suppression of political dissent.
“The Sheikh Zayed Book Award expresses its regret for Mr. Jurgen Habermas’ decision to retract his acceptance of the award but respects it,” the board said in a statement. “The award embodies the values of tolerance, knowledge and creativity while building bridges between cultures, and will continue to fulfill this mission.”
The Sheikh Zayed Book Award calls itself an “independent cultural initiative," with a higher committee of poets and academics that picks anonymous judges in the publishing field to name the winners. The prize website describes Abu Dhabi's cultural and tourism authorities as having "administered” the award, without clarifying which Emirati officials sit on the board of trustees.
Named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, first president of the UAE, the prize is traditionally awarded to outstanding writers, intellectuals and publishers. As the state’s most prestigious literary honor created in 2007, the award also aims to reward and encourage young talent whose writing “enriches Arab intellectual, cultural, literary and social life.” Previous recipients include Palestinian poet Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Lebanese author Amin Maalouf.
The award had honored Habermas as the Cultural Personality of the Year, a distinction that carries a cash prize of 1 million dirhams (over $272,000). Winners of other categories receive 750,000 UAE dirhams ($204,200) each. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan had personally congratulated Habermas for his win. Organizers had arranged an online award ceremony to run as part of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair later this month.
Habermas' influential writings on human rights, morality and democracy, among other topics, have stirred debate in Germany and beyond. He has been a proponent of critical social theory and studied under Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School of thought associated with the Institute for Social Research at Goethe University in Frankfurt. His works include “Theory of Communicative Action” and “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.”
Oil-rich and image-conscious Abu Dhabi increasingly has sought to pitch itself as a budding cultural center where east meets west, its outpost of France’s iconic Louvre Museum filled with hundreds of loaned works of art. Despite those lofty goals, the country's contentious politics can intrude. The UAE bans political parties and labor unions, while docile local media remains remain largely state-owned or government-linked.