Peace prize winner in fatwa row

May 26, 1995

The winner of the prestigious German Peace Book Prize has caused controversy after sharply criticising British author Salman Rushdie.

Annemarie Schimmel, one of Germany's most famous Islamic studies scholars, was awarded the prize for advocating co-operation and understanding between Islamic and Christian cultures "amid horrifying signals of religious fanaticism".

But she then prompted an outcry by saying in a television interview that Rushdie had injured the feelings of Moslems "in a very evil manner".

She said that, although she did not support the fatwa, or death edict, imposed on the author in l989 by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeni, writers had a duty to respect the religious beliefs of others.

Professor Schimmel, who has taught at the universities of Bonn and Ankara and became a professor of Indo-Moslem culture at Harvard University in 1970, said she had seen "grown men weep" when they learned of the contents of the book The Satanic Verses.

But Gernot Rotter, professor of contemporary Middle Eastern studies at the University of Hamburg, called on the Borsenverein, the German book trade association which awards the prize, to review their decision.

In an article for Die Zeit, Professor Rotter said: "A peace prize is for peace. When the winner is touched by even a shadow of understanding for a death penalty then the decision should be reconsidered - by both sides."

He said it was shameful that while some Moslem clerics and intellectuals had the courage to condemn the death sentence on Rushdie, Germany's most famous scholar of the Islamic faith was demanding "understanding for weeping Moslems. The weeping of the Moslems - which Moslems? - (is this) a justification for murder?".

His view has won sympathy in Germany where Islamic fundamentalism is a heated political issue. Earlier this year the German airline Lufthansa provoked criticism because it refused to accept Rushdie as a passenger.

And a growing number of private Islamic schools for Moslem children has also provoked controversy. But the Borsenverein is sticking by Professor Schimmel and said it has no plans to take back the prize, which will be presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.

A spokeswoman said that, while Professor Schimmel had undoubtedly been unfortunate and misunderstood, she has clearly condemned the death threat on Rushdie and remained a leading campaigner for tolerance and understanding. The Peace Book Prize is awarded each October Fair for "literary, scientific or artistic" work which supports the idea of peace.

Previous winners have included Czech president Vaclav Havel, Israeli writer Amos Oz and American historian and diplomat George F. Kennan.

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