Navid Kermani

Islamic Writer Wins German Peace Award

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Navid Kermani, winner of this year's German Book Industry peace award, is an outspoken Islamic scholar and author.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Navid Kermani appealed for resolute – possibly even military – action against the war in Syria in his Peace Prize acceptance speech on Sunday in Frankfurt.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Reporter and author Navid Kermani was born in Germany in 1967 to Iranian parents.
    • The scholar of Islam won the Hessian Culture Prize in 2009, but it was briefly withdrawn when co-recipients of the prize had a problem with his views.
    • Exterior minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has described Mr. Kermani as “a critical thinker and pugnacious scientist.”
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  • Audio

    Audio

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It is fitting that at the height of the refugee crisis in Germany, the Peace Prize of the German Book Industry has been awarded to Navid Kermani.

Mr. Kermani accepted his award in Frankfurt on Sunday. In his acceptance speech, he appealed to the international community to end the wars in Syria and Iraq.

Born in 1967 to Iranian immigrants, Mr. Kermani is an Islamic scholar. He is also well-known in Germany for his assertive, unsettling writing.

In 2009, Mr. Kermani was selected as one of the recipients for the Hessian Culture Prize. However, he was removed from the list after criticism by co-recipients Cardinal Karl Lehmann of the Catholic Church and Peter Steinacker of the Lutheran Church, who took issue with Mr. Kermani’s controversial interpretation of the crucifixion by the painter Guido Reni.

Only after a lot of discussion did Hesse state premier Roland Koch award him the prize, albeit at a later date and accompanied by an apology to the artist.

Mr. Kermani’s 2002 debut novel, “The Book of Those Killed by Neil Young,” offers a window into what makes the writer tick. His newborn daughter at the time suffered from colic and only the music of Neil Young could soothe her. The writing reflects his thoughts of paradise, God, knowledge, memory, security, love – and infant flatulence. For Mr. Kermani, the sublime and the banal are inconceivable without each other.

Mr. Kermani's speech in Germany's Bundestag on the 65th anniversary of the Basic Law was a tribute to the constitution of the country his parents came to as foreigners.

The autobiographical novel “Your Name” (2011), an opus of more than 1,000 pages, covers his ruminations on daily life, remembrance, passion, time and much more — all in the knowledge the endeavor ultimately must fail.

He shares this assessment with the German poet Jean Paul (1763–1825), who Mr. Kermani deeply admires. This is failure on the highest level. It’s thought-provoking and instructive for the reader to follow these intricate mental pathways and brilliant language.

Mr. Kermani is a writer who freely shares his thoughts about what is happening around him, such as the sorrow he feels about events in the Middle East and the perverse abuse of his religion by Islamic State, or IS.

Mr. Kermani’s speech in Germany’s lower legislative chamber the Bundestag on the 65th anniversary of the Basic Law was a significant moment in German parliamentary history – a tribute to the constitution of the country his parents came to as foreigners but has been his homeland from the beginning.

His gratitude to Germany touched many hearts, not just those in the plenary hall. And with his stinging criticism of the limitations on asylum through the 1993 changes to the Basic Law, he put his finger on a festering wound.

Ms. Merkel’s magnanimous gesture in September to open Germany’s borders to refugees from war zones might not have been possible absent Mr. Kermani’s speech.

His investigation of Christianity led to his latest book, “Ungläubiges Staunen,” which translates to “incredulous amazement.” Mr. Kermani’s dives into Christianity in a free-association style, with special emphasis on his reaction to the crucifixion. “For me, the cross is a symbol that I cannot accept theologically, cannot accept personally,” he said. “Others may believe whatever they want; what do I know?”

This “what do I know?” is the real strength of the book. Each individual text approaches the art work in a personal, subjective manner. Mr. Kermani’s “incredulous amazement,” his enthusiasm and respect are an act of appreciation, but they also express a wish – in this case that Christians don’t abandon their efforts to preserve their religion, or face its demise.

 

Ulrich Selich is an arts and culture editor at Handelsblatt Online. To contact: selich@handelsblatt.com.

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