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Jürgen Habermas, the philosopher who rejected a €225,000 prize | DW | 03.05.2021

The celebrated German philosopher Jürgen Habermas will turn 92 next month, yet he remains firmly in the public eye after he accepted, then rejected, a controversial award from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week.

Having decided to accept the Sheikh Zayed Book Award — which made him Cultural Personality of the Year 2021 and €225,000 ($271,000) richer — Habermas turned it down on Sunday over concerns about human rights in the Gulf nation.

In the end, Habermas could not compromise his core philosophical principles established over more than seven decades. 

Having advocated for the right to asylum during the 2015 migrant crisis, and against right-wing populism and xenophobia in the 2019 European Parliament elections, Habermas remains actively committed to his cosmopolitan ideal of an open and rigorous democracy.

After turning 90 in 2019, he also published a 1,700-page work, This Too a History of Philosophy, a look at the evolution of human rationality and reason that the Boston Review called “a masterpiece of erudition and synthesis.”

But his acceptance of an award from a UAE absolute monarchy accused of repression has been seen to contradict his avowed principles of freedom of opinion and open debate in a healthy “public sphere.”

In a statement to the Spiegel Online news website, he admitted that his initial embrace of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award “was a wrong decision,” adding that “I didn’t sufficiently make clear to myself the very close connection of the institution, which awards these prizes in Abu Dhabi, with the existing political system there.”

The philosopher at his home in 1981

The creation of a public sphere

Born in Dusseldorf in 1929, Jürgen Habermas is most closely associated with the city of Frankfurt — more specifically, with a school of social and critical theory known as the Frankfurt School.

After earning a doctorate in philosophy in Bonn, in 1964 he took over the chair of philosophy and sociology at the University of Frankfurt from Max Horkheimer, a position he held until 1971. His postdoctoral thesis from 1961, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (published in English translation in 1989 as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere), establishes his concept of the “public sphere” as as the domain through which reasoned “public opinion” can be employed to tame the excesses of capitalism.

His updating of Marxist theory for the times influenced the 1968 student insurrection; however, when the protest movement became more radical, the philosopher openly criticized it.

In his chief work from 1981, Theory of Communicative Action, he developed a theoretical action guide for modern society, which again looked at how language and rational argumentation can evolve so that every participant is free to take part in democratic discourse.

Student protests 1968

Habermas inspired the 1968 protests to call for more democracy

UAE human rights record

Despite the UAE trying to present itself as “a bastion of liberalism,” according to Kenneth Roth, Executive Director at Human Rights Watch, “behind the glistening façade is an uglier reality where critics are jailed, the rights of migrant workers are limited, and the ruler of Dubai locks up his adult daughter for wanting to escape life under his thumb.”

Latifa is one daughter of the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, who alleges she is being held against her will since attempting to leave the country in 2018. Meanwhile, her sister Shamsa has not been seen since 2000 when she was allegedly abducted from Cambridge, England.

A #FreeLatifa campaign gained momentum when video footage of the despairing princess was aired on BBC in February.

This follows a ruling by a UK judge in March 2020, which said the billionaire ruler of Dubai ordered the abduction of his daughters and subjected his estranged wife to a campaign of fear and intimidation.

The day before Habermas declined the UAE award, the #FreeLatifa campaign also fuelled calls to ban Sheikh Mohammed’s horse, Essential Quality, from the Kentucky Derby.

Habermas’ decision to rescind the award comes as the UAE’s authoritarian government attempts to contrast human rights concerns in the Gulf nation with a more liberal and tolerant outlook. Dubai is well-known for its celebrity “influencers” who receive tax-free income to promote the sun-soaked desert nation. The oil-rich UAE has also become a generous patron of arts and culture in recent times. As an illustration of this, the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is pitched as embodying “the values of tolerance, knowledge and creativity while building bridges between cultures.”

Enlightenment thinker initially accepts award

When Habermas initially accepted the award, Spiegel Online questioned why the greatest German thinker of the last 50 years hadn’t simply turned it down.

“With this world-class thinker who has stood for the Enlightenment project and critical distance from power for more than half a century, it should be possible to answer the question [of whether to accept the award] with a resounding ‘no,'” wrote Spiegel Online on Sunday.

Habermas had first said he hoped the award would provide a “tailwind” for the “dissemination of books” in the region that, like his, similarly promote freedom of opinion and democracy. He also stated that he had sought advice from Jürgen Boos, the managing director of the Frankfurt Book Fair who also sits on the committee that adjudicates the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. 

In his statement, Habermas pointed out that Boos had “dispelled concerns that are obvious.” Contacted by DW, Habermas and Boos have not provided further comment on the award.

Declines on eve of World Press Freedom day

Once Habermas rescinded the award, some on social media said that the philosopher had upheld the spirit of the “public sphere.” 

“It is good to see Jürgen Habermas, whose scholarship defines the concept of the public sphere, has rejected an award from the UAE on #WorldPressFreedomDay,” wrote “independent activist” @LyndonPeters01 on Twitter. “With no press freedom in the UAE there is no public sphere. So we should reiterate the calls to #FreeAhmedMansoor,” he added, referring to the human rights activist who was jailedfor criticizing the UAE government.

 

Having lived through the Nazi regime, Habermas was inspired to embolden democracy in Europe and the world through his writings.

The question of how a repetition of how the Holocaust could be prevented was fundamental to his work. He was ultimately inspired to create complex communication models through which members of a society could aim to balance their different interests.

“Consensual” was the name given to those social models, and the term had an exceptional impact on the Federal Republic of Germany’s self-image. Citizens were no longer to receive orders from above; rather, they should be encouraged to intervene in public, to formulate their views openly and include them into a large-scale discussion, one in which everyone would be working towards an acceptable compromise.


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