LONDON – There are wars fought with heavy weaponry — and there are battles waged with a pen.
Egyptian playwright and outspoken critic of radical Islam Ali Salem was awarded the $50,000 Civil Courage Prize Wednesday, presented by the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom at a ceremony in London.
The prize, established by the Train Foundation in 2000, recognizes heroes of conscience andwas inspired by the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose brave struggle against Stalinist tyranny helped bring down the Soviet empire.
"The Civil Courage Prize exists to recognize heroes of conscience like Ali Salem. He is one of many brave people around the world who resist intimidation, ostracism and pressure, and risk their lives, to promote freedom and justice. They are not soldiers or politicians, but ordinary people with the courage to do extraordinary things," said John Train, founder of the Civil Courage Prize.
"A healthy society relies on civil courage, and we hope that by recognizing it in people like Ali Salem we can not only support him in his work, but also give others the courage to follow in his footsteps."
Salem's fight for peace is far from over. At 72 years old, he remains a warrior of ideas. Though his professional love is theater, he's got another passion:
Salem dreams of the day there will be peace between the Palestinians and Israel.
"Without peace the whole region will be prey to extremist attitudes. The Palestinians need peace, the Arabs need peace, and so does Israel," he told FOX News before accepting the award.
Salem has paid a price for his outspoken advocacy of peace with Israel and of democracy in Egypt. He was interrogated over a five-year period for having made a short film in 2000 that encouraged people to get out the vote in Egypt.
He was kicked out of the Egyptian writers' union, and his plays — considered classics in Egyptian theater — have not been performed in Egypt since 1994.
That was the year he hopped into his beat-up car and drove to Israel following the signing of the Oslo Accords, when some Palestinian factions recognized Israel's right to exist for the first time. Though Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979, Salem's trip to Israel was controversial because of the wide anti-Israeli sentiment still alive in Egypt.
"Of course I was like anyone else — not full of hatred, but there was some hatred accumulated inside me over the years. But going there driving, you feel all the time that you are getting rid of that hatred" he told FOX News. "It was hard but beautiful. When you feel you are doing something unique it is beautiful."
Not everyone back home saw it that way. Salem was expelled from his union for "activity aimed at normalizing relations with the Zionists."
Upon his return, he wrote about his visit in a book called "A Drive to Israel," which sold 60,000 copies in Egypt.
"I explained my experience there for 23 nights, telling both sides it is time to know each other. It is time to take direct steps toward peace," he said.
Salem — who denounces Islamic radicalism, Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and Palestinian homicide bombers — faces pressure from both sides. He was denied entry to Israel in 2005 when he was en route to receive an honorary degree from Ben Gurion University.
Despite the fact that the peace process seems somewhat frozen now, Salem is heartened by certain developments in the region.
"In the Arab countries, starting from Saudi Arabia — and Saudi Arabia is a strong country in the region — people are talking about peace. They are saying 'Yes, we are willing to make normal relations with Israel as long as it does so and so,'" he said.
"The youth in Egypt and many Arab countries started thinking logically about the whole thing. I think only extremists now are against peace," he told FOX News. "The new generation in Egypt and Arab countries think and see that peace is something essential, vital and necessary."
Not only young people have impressed Salem of late. He also points out the significance of Israeli President Shimon Peres' attendance at Saudi King Abdullah's interfaith dialogue at the United Nations last week. This, Salem says, would not have happened until recently.
Asked if he had any advice on the Middle East for President-Elect Barack Obama, Salem offered a hopeful message.
“We, the people of the third world trust you. And we trust that you know very well that you are not just presiding over America, you have an impact on the whole world,' he said. "So take care of that.”