The University of Potsdam awarded the “Voltaire Prize for Tolerance, International Understanding and Respect for Differences” for the first time on June 22, 2017. The prize went to the Turkish academic Hilal Alkan, who had signed a petition against the war in the Kurdish territories and denounced the actions committed by security forces against civilians. As a result, Alkan, who has a Ph.D. in Social Sciences, lost her job. After that, she came to Berlin where she has been doing research ever since.
Chairman of the Jury and President of the University of Potsdam Professor Oliver Günther, Ph.D. explained the jury’s decision as follows: “Hilal Alkan is a wonderful choice to be honored with the inaugural Voltaire Prize. She is a young scholar who is acting within an increasingly difficult political environment that cost her her academic position. Yet she has not been discouraged through all of it; she has continued with her work and has not allowed her voice to be silenced.” The jury voted unanimously for Hilal Alkan, Günther added. Their hope was that people like Alkan could serve as role models, upholding the ideals of the Enlightenment for which Voltaire’s name stands, both in the future and specifically in difficult political times. Five years later, Hilal Alkan looks back on the Prize and its meaning, but also on her research conducted in its spirit.
In 2017, you won the Voltaire Prize for Tolerance, International Understanding and Respect for Differences. What effects did the prize have on you? Receiving the prize was a great honor for me. I am yet to see if it will have a positive effect on my career prospects in Germany. Part of the award money went to the funding of my own research and another part to a solidarity fund supporting Turkish academics who lost their jobs due to the political pressures in Turkey.
What are your current research projects – also in terms of tolerance, international understanding and respect for differences? My current research is about Syrian refugees who lived in Turkey before coming to Germany. In the context of research, they compare their experiences of welcoming, hostility and structural hardships in both countries. Germany and Turkey have distinct approaches to immigration and asylum. For Syrian refugees, Turkey offered an immediate feeling of cultural integration and safety, while it did not give them the income security to pursue their future goals. In Germany, on the other hand, Syrian refugees experience a lack of meaningful social existence; however they feel generally safe and secure. Both countries and most importantly their residents have much to learn from each other in order to ease refugees’ acceptance into society.
Why should one nominate academics for the Voltaire Prize? As the prize is getting more and more established, it would bring scientists international recognition and prestige. The prize’s core value, in my view, is to combine cutting-edge academic work with political activism for democracy and peaceful conviviality. The prize recipients are therefore recognized as such, and the prize itself is an appreciation of their work in both spheres.
The University of Potsdam awarded the “Voltaire Prize for Tolerance, International Understanding and Respect for Differences” for the first time on June 22, 2017. Young academics can still be nominated for the 2021 Voltaire Prize until October 7, 2020.