Habermas vs. the Sheikh Zayed Book Award: An Intellectual or Soft Power Conflict!

Michael Teague
A web-based image of Jürgen Habermas during a discussion in the Munich School of Philosophy.

Jürgen Habermas's decision to reject the Sheikh Zayed Book Award's "Cultural Personality of the Year" prize set off a heated debate in the Arab press. Habermas is the most famous remaining representative of the second generation of the Frankfurt school, but despite his considerable bibliography, he was not well-known at the popular level in the Arab world. After his initial acceptance and then rejection of the Sheikh Zayed award, however, intellectuals in the employ of the United Arab Emirates criticized the German philosopher vociferously. Some of them resorted to hasty misreadings of his work to do so, while others pointed to his position (or lack thereof) on Israel. Habermas is vulnerable on this flank, as Hussam Abou Hamed in the online Diffah Thalitha Magazine points to his "confusing and contradictory" position on the Palestinian question. While he has rarely shown a bias towards Israel, he also has not criticized it. But those who would defend the UAE with this line of reasoning must do so at the same time as they ignore the process of normalization with Israel that their own government is currently pursuing.

Meanwhile, and only a short distance to the West, intellectuals in the employ of Qatar ran to the defense of Habermas. Fueled by a sudden new appreciation for his work (and perhaps their own hasty misreadings), they conveniently ignored the fact that Habermas' criticism of the UAE easily applies to Qatar as well. Other critics justified his indifference to the plight of the Palestinians on account of Germany's history, a move that ultimately does not hold up to greater scrutiny. In the New York Times, German-Jewish philosopher Omri Boehm notes that "The reluctance of German intellectuals to speak critically about Israel is, of course, understandable. Many would agree that refusing to comment in this case is only appropriate — German responsibility for the crimes of the Holocaust would make it so." But this hardly excuses Habermas from speaking out on Palestine or the state of Israeli "democracy," since Boehm also points out that "when the founder of a branch of philosophy called discourse ethics refuses to speak, there are theoretical and political consequences. The silence here is itself a speech act and a very public one indeed."
The lack of substance in this debate is instantly palpable, with both camps trading recriminations on behalf of undemocratic political systems. All the same, we should resist the temptation to brush off yet another cartoonish failure of Gulf soft-power projection, lest we overlook important issues that have come to the surface. For starters, we must question the motivation of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award's choice of the German philosopher. Previous recipients of the "Cultural Personality of the Year" award have included Arabs (Amin Maalouf), non-Arabs (Denys Johnson-Davies), and even organizations (UNESCO), all of which share some obvious connection to or preoccupation with the Arab world. It is hard to tell where Habermas fits into this trajectory, as his writings have not dealt with the Arab world in any significant way. Instead, his academic work builds on the ideas of the 18th-century Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant and a critical social theory developed in the 1920s by pioneer thinkers like Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse. His main preoccupations have been subjects such as capitalism, the rule of law, the public sphere, democracy, social-political theory, rationality, and communication and knowledge (subjects which Abou Hamed underlines as hypocritical considering Habermas' willingness to visit a country like Israel, which deprives Palestinians of even their most basic rights).
Many critics have rightly questioned how an intellectual of Habermas’s caliber could have accepted this prize in the first place, unaware of its connection to the Emirates, a monarchical regime that holds very little in common with liberal Western traditions. Juergen Boos, the president and CEO of the Frankfurt Book Fair and a committee member who chose the winner of the Sheikh Zayed Award, initially dismissed Habermas' concerns when the latter sought his advice in the matter. This is an unsightly detail that belies attempts to explain the rejection based on principles and subsequently invites a further charge of hypocrisy, or at the very least inconsistency. It is fair for critics to point out the contrast between Habermas's criticism of the UAE with his silence regarding Israel on the other. Indeed, the German philosopher has excused himself from even having to take a position on Israeli government policy, saying that it is not "the work of a private German citizen of my generation." However, this has not stopped him from publicly opining that Palestinian resistance has more to do with "old-fashioned terrorism" than it does national liberation.
Habermas is not the only one who emerges from this scenario with egg on his face. According to the Sheikh Zayed Award website, a "Scientific Committee" of nine individuals, all men, and the overwhelming majority of whom are academics working in various aspects of Arab culture, determine the winners. What process of deliberation led them to choose Habermas? And how did such a presumably learned group of men not foresee that a philosopher with Habermas's political and intellectual approach might be unwilling to accept a prize from an institution in a non-democratic state such as the United Arab Emirates? Did they not consider beforehand the embarrassment that such a rejection could cause?
Whether the entire story ever comes to light, the value of these questions lies as much in their answers as it does in the vexing nature of the questions themselves. It is difficult not to marvel at the chronic lack of subtlety that seems to permeate all Emirati efforts to purchase clout on the international stage. On the landing page of the book award's website, for example, the following headline immediately greeted viewers with: "One of the Arab World's most prestigious and well-funded prizes." Meanwhile, the 'about' page seeks to reassure that "The Sheikh Zayed Book award is an independent cultural initiative administered by Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi," the same department that purchased the rights to use the 'Louvre' name for a museum at the cost of $525 million.
The conspicuous largesse coupled with a clear lack of self-awareness is on display regarding decisions about awards and museums and the establishment of extension campuses for universities such as NYU, Harvard, and Yale. To date, it appears most of these efforts have resulted in at least some scandal or embarrassment for the government. Every project involving new construction comes with a price tag denominated not only in dollars but also in increased exposure to the country's dismal labor practices and horrifying treatment of migrant workers. As for the realm of culture and academia, at NYU's Abu Dhabi campus alone, there have been several relatively high-profile incidents in which academics have complained of censorship, or the country denied them entry because of the content of their work. In 2018 a British student, Matthew Hedges, received a life prison sentence on suspicion of being a spy (a British government pressure led to pardon and release).
Regardless of his reasoning or sincerity, Habermas's rejection of the award created a spectacle that has brought renewed attention to these issues, and not just in the UAE. With their vast natural resource wealth, all Gulf countries have invested heavily in the international credit market. And with dollars flowing in every direction, an array of characters have sought to cash in, from the aforementioned cultural and academic institutions to sports organizations (Qatar's purchase of the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament, which saw it funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to FIFA, comes to mind here).
The book award controversy has also revealed another factor that deserves material analysis. Underpinning the lack of substance in the argument between Habermas's newfound detractors and supporters is unrecognized anxiety about the relationship between Arab culture and Gulf institutions. The fact is that today, there is minimal mainstream Arab culture to speak of outside the flows of Gulf money, outside of the marketplace of Gulf institutions, museums, universities, media, and prizes. The futility of the debate over this book award, whether it takes the form of crude nationalism, exaggerated reverence for the heroic act of rejection, or shrill accusations of hypocrisy and bowing to "cancel culture," can be interpreted as expressions of helplessness, embarrassment, and unease regarding the structural conditions of the present-day Arab cultural scene.
Suppose we subtract Habermas's name and the names of the specific Gulf countries from this debate. In that case, they leave us with the framework of an argument in which one side maintains that their Gulf patron exists beyond reproach. In contrast, the other claims that every producer or production is irrevocably tainted by any contact with the opposing side's Gulf patron. The conflict here is merely an aesthetic one, serving as a distraction from the actual issue, that Gulf institutions are now the basic structure of the cultural playing field. But while both "sides" seem to be content with shouting into the same void, there is some measure of hope to be taken from the Habermas incident. Gulf policymakers created institutions like the Sheikh Zayed Book Award to dominate the arena of culture and turn it into a tool of public relations and foreign policy. Their fragility is proof that this cultural field has already grown to a point where it is becoming difficult to control.

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