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KNOWLEDGE CENTRE, CULTURE & INTERVIEWS

Can Cultural Safari Raise Russia’s Image Across Africa

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By Kester Kenn Klomegah

After several years of heightened criticisms of falling cultural diplomacy, Russia has begun filling the huge pitfalls and cracks. In the context of the emerging multipolar order, Russia has taken the appreciable and practical step in its renewed Russia-African diplomacy, but has a long meandering road in establishing its cultural influence and realising the expected impact on the public perception.

Russians have to warmly admit the cultural catastrophe. On the other hand, it has to go far beyond the decades-long traditional rhetoric and diplomatic niceties, at least be open to African cultural troupes to Russia as it readies for strengthening cultural relations. In the context of global turbulence, Russia’s doors are still closed for all these due to fragmented post-Soviet public outreach diplomacy, while it hopes to lead and currently advocating for democratization of international life and multipolar order.

In order to raise its geopolitical influence, it has to re-examine the cultural component in relations with Africa. It is the moment of truth, there are existing challenges and realities on the landscape but the United States, Europe and Asian States such as China have broadened their strategic soft power and generally the public diplomacy. For Russia to regain part of its Soviet-era influence, it has to address its own image, with seriousness and consistency, in addition to other several questions in Africa.

Many experts believe that Russia is far behind, and surprisingly most often ignore policy expert views and suggestions, for instance, proposed in the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ on Russia-Africa. That report, researched and compiled by 25 policy experts headed by Professor Sergei A. Karaganov who is the Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, was very critical about Russia’s current policy towards Africa.

That, however, on the eve of the second Russia-Africa Summit scheduled for St. Petersburg in 2023, Russia has taken cultural tour to there East Africa. The three African countries included Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia, according to reports monitored from the Russian Ministry of Culture. The ministry’s key task is to ensure Russia strengthens its status as a great cultural power, exchange experience in multifaceted cultural fields with external countries. The ministry deals with culture and arts issues as well as implementing strategies with external countries and within the Russian Federation.

“The festival is intended to popularize the diversity of Russia’s cultural heritage and will introduce the foreign audience to the best examples of Russia’s unique vocal folklore performed traditionally and in modern adaptation as well as the popular pieces of musical academic art,” its statement said.

The Festival of Russian Culture designed to bolster intercultural interaction with African countries. It aims at portraying Russian culture and geography, so it included a photo exhibit of picturesque locations of Russia’s Far North. The report asserted that visitors would view the landscapes of northern parts of Russia, from the Murmansk to Kamchatka Regions.

There have been series of discussions on culture between Russia and Africa, the latest report in October 2022 says the Culture and Sports Minister of Ethiopia Kejela Merdasa discussed with Ambassador of Russia to Ethiopia, Evgeny Terekhin on how to enhance the long standing relations between the two countries in the culture and sports sectors. Both agreed on an arrangement for the signing of MoU between the two countries on cultural cooperation.

Undoubtedly, there is huge cultural gap between Russia and Africa. Despite the general pessimism, there is still a chance to revive Russia’s cultural relationship with Africa. Last November 2021, Egypt recieved a Russian cultural troupe as part of the Russia-Egypt Year of Humanitarian Cooperation. Russia’s Deputy Minister of Culture Olga Yarilova, who led the Russian delegation in the meeting there at the Cairo Opera House, emphasized the strength of cultural relations between Cairo and Moscow.

Beryozka (Berezka) Dance Ensemble, one of the internationally renowned and oldest Russian dance troupes, presented a number of artistic shows on Russian folklore in Cairo, Egypt. The Ensemble is a troupe of female dancers founded by Russian choreographer and dancer Nadezhda Nadezhdina in 1948 in the Soviet Union which specializes in performing in long gowns and moving across the stage as though on wheels or floating.

South Africa also saw Russian cultural performance in 2015. Professor Gerrit Olivier at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, and former South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation, wrote in an emailed query that “what seems to irk the Russians, in particular, is very few initiatives go beyond the symbolism, pomp and circumstance of high level opening moves.”

Important though is the fact that the Soviet Union never tried to colonize Africa. Soviet influence in Africa disappeared almost like a mirage with the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991. Russia’s cultural diplomacy is completely catastrophic.

In the current assessment of Russia’s influence in Africa, despite efforts towards resuscitation, has remained marginal. While, given its global status, it ought to be active in Africa as Western Europe, the European Union, America and China are, it is all but absent, playing a negligible role, according to the views of the retired South African diplomat.

Of particular importance here and as Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has oftentimes pointed to the unique fact that strengthening comprehensive partnership with African countries today is among the priorities of Russia’s foreign policy.

“Russia highly appreciates its African friends, who just as a vast majority of members of the world community defied unprecedented, brutal pressure, to refuse to join the anti-Russian sanctions, and continue to develop the dialogue and cooperation with us. Such an independent policy focused on national interests deserves deep respect,” Lavrov said early November, the transcript posted to the official website.

“We regard Africa as a unique and dynamically developing continent, a continent of the future. We consistently advocate the strengthening of its role in the multipolar architecture of the world order. We wish its voice, firm and independent to be heard and taken into account in the international arena,” he underlined about Russia’s support Africa.

Western culture and orientation have largely dominated Africa which has the fastest-growing population in the world. The African public is not exposed to Russian culture neither African culture exposed to Russians.

In their joint summit declaration, the two sides set plethora of ambitious goals to develop and strengthen people-to people and cultural relations. The declaration’s point 10 states the facilitation of the people-to-people contacts between Russia and Africa using the potential of non-governmental organizations and various fora, including the youth ones.

The declaration’s point 43 highlights the benefits of civilization diversity, encourage cooperation in sports, tourism and mass media. And in addition to those spheres mentioned, the document states that cultural exchanges are essential for the development of mutual understanding, friendship and cooperation between the peoples of Africa and the Russian Federation.

Courtesy: Modern Diplomacy


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KNOWLEDGE CENTRE, CULTURE & INTERVIEWS

Israeli Military Destroys 604 Mosques in Gaza

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In a recent report by the Palestinian Samaa news agency, the Israeli military’s actions in Gaza have destroyed 604 mosques and partial damage to over 200 more. This alarming figure highlights the severe impact of ongoing conflicts on religious and cultural sites in the region.

The Israeli military has not only targeted mosques but has also wreaked havoc on other religious sites. According to the report, 60 cemeteries have been targeted, leading to further distress among the local population. The occupying regime has been accused of desecrating these sacred sites, with reports of the kidnapping and slaughtering of over 1,000 martyrs and deceased individuals. This has intensified the suffering of families who have lost their loved ones and now face the added trauma of not being able to bury them with dignity.

The Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs in Gaza has been significantly affected by the Israeli attacks. The report details the destruction of 15 of the ministry’s headquarters, including its main office, the headquarters of Radio Quran, Khan Yunis Endowment Management, and the center for preserving documents and manuscripts. These attacks have disrupted the ministry’s administrative functions and resulted in the loss of invaluable religious and historical records.

The human cost of these attacks is equally tragic. The report states that 91 employees of the Ministry of Awqaf in Gaza have been martyred in the Israeli military’s operations. These individuals were not just government employees but community members dedicated to preserving and promoting religious practices and cultural heritage in Gaza.

In the context of these devastating events, it’s essential to highlight the broader implications and the latest related developments. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza has drawn international condemnation, with numerous human rights organizations calling for an immediate ceasefire and a thorough investigation into the attacks on civilian and religious sites.

Recent reports from various international media outlets have underscored the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The United Nations and other global bodies have been vocal about the urgent need for humanitarian aid and the protection of civilians in conflict zones. The destruction of mosques, cemeteries, and religious headquarters not only disrupts the daily lives of Gaza’s residents but also erodes the cultural and religious fabric of the community.

The destruction of 604 mosques in Gaza by the Israeli military is a stark reminder of the toll that ongoing conflicts take on religious and cultural heritage. As the international community continues to monitor the situation, it’s crucial to support efforts that promote peace and protect the sanctity of religious sites. Events like the Halal Fair highlight the resilience of communities in maintaining their traditions and values despite facing significant challenges.


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What is Zakat al-Fitr and When to Pay it?

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As the holy month of Ramadan draws to a close, Muslims around the globe prepare for one of Islam’s most significant acts of charity – Zakat al-Fitr. This pivotal practice not only marks the culmination of a month dedicated to fasting and spiritual growth but also emphasizes Islam’s deep-rooted principles of community support and compassion. But what exactly is Zakat al-Fitr, and when is the ideal time to fulfill this important Islamic duty? Dive into our comprehensive guide to understand the essence, timing, and impact of Zakat al-Fitr, ensuring you’re well-prepared to participate in this act of kindness and solidarity.

The Essence of Zakat al-Fitr

Zakat al-Fitr, often simply called Fitrana, is a form of charity given to the poor at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Think of it as a purification tax for the fasting person, cleansing minor transgressions committed during the month. But it’s more than just a corrective measure; it’s a proactive step towards fostering community spirit and ensuring that everyone, regardless of their financial situation, can join in the joyous celebrations of Eid al-Fitr.

Timing is Key: When to Pay Zakat al-Fitr

The timing for Zakat al-Fitr is quite specific – it should be given before the Eid al-Fitr prayers. This precise timing ensures that the charity reaches those in need in time for them to make use of it for their Eid celebrations. Imagine you are preparing a banquet and want to ensure everyone has something to bring to the table. Paying Zakat al-Fitr just before Eid is akin to inviting everyone to join the feast, ensuring no one is left out of the celebration.

Who Should Pay Zakat al-Fitr?

Zakat al-Fitr is obligatory for all Muslims who have the means to do so. This includes adults and children, with the head of the household often paying on behalf of the young ones. Imagine if every member of a family plants a seed in a garden; over time, these seeds grow into a lush oasis. Similarly, when each family member contributes to Zakat al-Fitr, it strengthens the communal bonds and spreads happiness far and wide.

How Much to Pay?

The amount of Zakat al-Fitr is not measured in currency but in the staple foodstuff of your community – be it wheat, barley, dates, or rice. The Prophet Muhammad specified it as one Sa’a (approximately between 2.6 kg to 3kg) of food for each person. In today’s terms, many scholars suggest translating this amount into your local currency, making it easier to fulfill this obligation. Picture filling a basket with enough food to feed a family; that’s the spirit you are aiming to replicate with your contribution.

The Beneficiaries of Your Generosity

Zakat al-Fitr is intended for the poor and the needy, a means to spread happiness and allow everyone to celebrate Eid with dignity and joy. It is like sending out invitations to a grand dinner where everyone is a guest of honor. By giving Zakat al-Fitr, you are ensuring that the less fortunate are not forgotten but are instead an integral part of the communal celebration.

The Impact of Zakat al-Fitr: A Ripple Effect

The beauty of Zakat al-Fitr lies in its immediate and far-reaching impact. It is not just about the act of giving but about the connections and community it builds. Like a single lamp lighting others, your act of generosity can brighten the lives of many, creating a ripple effect of kindness and compassion that echoes beyond Eid.

Personal Stories of Zakat al-Fitr

Let us consider a story to bring this to life. Imagine a small community where every household sets aside a portion of their staple food for Zakat al-Fitr. As the collection grows, so does a sense of unity and anticipation. On the day of Eid, this collective effort translates into a shared celebration, with everyone -regardless of their economic status – joining in the feast. It is a beautiful illustration of how individual acts of kindness can weave a tapestry of communal joy.

Making Zakat al-Fitr Part of Your Ramadan

Incorporating Zakat al-Fitr into your Ramadan practice enriches your spiritual experience, reminding us that Islam is a religion of balance – between personal devotion and social responsibility. As we seek closeness to Allah through fasting and prayer, we are also called to extend our compassion to those around us.

Embracing the Spirit of Zakat al-Fitr

As we approach the end of Ramadan, let’s embrace Zakat al-Fitr not just as a duty, but as an opportunity to express our gratitude for all we have been given by giving back to those in need. In doing so, we not only purify our own fasts but contribute to a wider celebration of love, compassion, and communal solidarity.

Zakat al-Fitr is a beautiful tradition that encapsulates the essence of Ramadan: reflection, renewal, and generosity. By understanding its significance and meticulously observing its practice, we not only comply with a religious obligation but also contribute to a more inclusive, compassionate, and joyful Eid celebration for everyone. Let’s carry the spirit of Zakat al-Fitr in our hearts and actions, making it a beacon of light that guides us from the sacred month of Ramadan into the rest of the year.


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Exploring Iftar Traditions Around the Globe

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As the crescent moon marks the beginning of Ramadan, Muslims worldwide prepare for a month of spiritual reflection, community, and of course, delicious food! Every evening at sunset comes Iftar, the time to break the fast and enjoy a shared meal with loved ones. But Iftar traditions vary greatly across the globe, offering a fascinating glimpse into different cultures. From savory dishes in Morocco to sweet treats in Indonesia, join us on a delicious journey as we explore Exploring Iftar Traditions Around the Globe!

The Essence of Iftar: Exploring Diverse Traditions Around the World

Imagine the Maghreb call to prayer echoing through the city as families in Morocco prepare for Iftar. The table is a colorful mosaic of dates, harissa (a savory tomato and lentil soup), and chakra (flower-shaped cookies coated with honey and sesame seeds). The act of breaking the fast with a date isn’t just a Moroccan tradition; it’s a practice deeply rooted in Islamic teachings and followed across many countries, symbolizing the simplicity and purity of the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) own practices. This gesture, as small as it may seem, embodies the essence of Iftar: a return to simplicity, gratitude, and unity.

A Feast Under the Stars in the Middle East

Journey with me to the Middle East, where the Iftar scene transforms into a lavish spread under the stars. In countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, families and friends gather in majlis tents to share Iftar, reflecting a sense of community and generosity. The air is filled with the aroma of spiced lamb, kabsa, and the sweetness of kunafa. The majlis, traditionally a place of social gathering, becomes a symbol of togetherness and hospitality during Ramadan, embodying the spirit of sharing and giving.

The Simplicity and Serenity of Southeast Asia

Our next stop is Southeast Asia, where the essence of Iftar shines through the simplicity and serenity of its observance. In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, the breaking of the fast is often preceded by the consumption of kolak, a sweet coconut milk-based dessert with bananas and sweet potatoes. This humble dish highlights the importance of gratitude and moderation, reminding us that the spirit of Ramadan lies not in the extravagance of the meal but in the sincerity of the gathering.

The Communal Harmony of South Asia

In the bustling streets of South Asia, Iftar brings a moment of calm and togetherness amidst the chaos. Pakistan and Bangladesh are known for their Iftar bazaars, where streets come alive with vendors selling a variety of snacks and sweets. Samosas, pakoras, and jalebis are shared amongst neighbors and friends, illustrating the communal harmony that Ramadan fosters. It’s a scene where the rich tapestry of South Asian culture is on full display, with Iftar serving as a bridge between diverse communities.

The Global Melting Pot

As we journey from one country to another, exploring the traditions of Iftar, we realize that it is more than just a meal; it is a global melting pot of traditions, flavors, and stories. Each dish, each gathering, tells a story of heritage, faith, and unity. The essence of Iftar lies in its ability to bring people together, transcending geographical and cultural boundaries. It is a time when differences are set aside, and the universal values of kindness, generosity, and compassion are celebrated.

As the sun sets, signaling the end of the day’s fast, millions worldwide gather for Iftar, embodying the essence of Iftar: exploring diverse traditions around the world. This meal, far more than just nourishment, marks a time of joy, reflection, and community. Spanning from Cairo’s liveliness to Indonesia’s tranquility, Iftar traditions showcase a rich cultural tapestry. In embracing these varied customs and flavors, we uncover the unity and diversity of the Muslim Ummah. The essence of Iftar reminds us of Islam’s beauty and diversity, urging us to appreciate our global community’s shared values of community, gratitude, and reflection as we break our fast, infused with the spirit of Ramadan.


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