x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Unesco-Sharjah prize-winner Mustapha Chérif: 'Arab culture can help make sense of modernity'

Algerian academic Mustapha Chérif talks about receiving this year's Unesco-Sharjah Prize for his work promoting Arab culture.

The Algerian thinker Mustapha Chérif is the joint recipient of a major Unesco prize. Courtesy Mustapha Chérif
The Algerian thinker Mustapha Chérif is the joint recipient of a major Unesco prize. Courtesy Mustapha Chérif

The prestigious Unesco-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture is awarded to individuals or institutions who contribute to the development, dissemination and promotion of Arab culture in the world.

This year's prize, to be awarded tomorrow at the Unesco headquarters in Paris, is shared between the Arab British Centre and the Algerian scholar and essayist Mustapha Chérif. Selected by an international jury for his promotion of intercultural dialogue, which has spanned more than 30 years, and the understanding of Arab and Islamic cultures, Chérif was also recently awarded the Ducci Foundation Peace Prize 2013.

"Receiving a prize such as this, or the Peace Prize, is a form of consecration, encouragement and distinction," says Chérif. "It encourages me to believe that the work I do bears fruit. I hope that it is mutually beneficial, in the sense that the prize highlights my work but that my receiving the prize brings its existence to a wider audience."

An intellectual of international renown, Chérif has taught at universities in Algeria, France and Spain and is responsible for setting up Europe's first online master's degree in Arabic and Islamic studies.

"I see myself as a sort of courier and link between worlds. This prize goes to show that it is still possible to work on the dissemination of knowledge; to come out of cultural or national isolation and to learn from other cultures. I try to open up dialogue that respects diversity and the right to be different. Cultural dialogue contributes to understanding and resolving a range of problems, and we all share a common destiny.

"I would define my role as that of an intercultural mediator. My work helps to build bridges. Islamic culture is not well-known and is often misunderstood in many parts of the world, and furthermore sadly misrepresented by a minority. Yet this culture has all the qualities of reason, debate and logic. It is rich in every domain and has withstood the test of time; it should provide us with the basis to construct a new civilisation."

Chérif has published 11 books on Islamic civilisation, its interpretation and its role through history and in the modern world. "For over 30 years I have worked on the issue of how to keep the roots of Arab culture alive; and how to keep the roots of our culture in step with the modern world. Arab culture is one of the most ancient cultures in the world; it has enriched civilisations on five continents. Society today owes much to Arab culture but its humanism is not well enough appreciated."

The founder and president of Algeria's Université de la Formation Continue, a former minister of higher education and Algeria's ambassador in Cairo, Chérif was born in the country in 1950 to an intellectual and spiritual family.

"My family had a profound love of its country but accorded equal importance to the diversity of cultures, to tolerance and dignity. I studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and in Toulouse. From a young age, my work was focused on how to remain faithful to my origins and how to apply those values to a changin