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Samia Suluhu Hassan is Reforming Tanzania



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By Nicodemus Minde

A series of political manoeuvres by Tanzania President Samia Suluhu Hassan have set the east African country on an unfamiliar, yet hopeful, political path. Since her elevation to the presidency two years ago following the death of John Pombe Magufuli, the new president has struck a reformist political tone and led reconciliation with a previously marginalised opposition. None of this would have been possible under Magufuli. Magufuli not only stifled the opposition, but also went as far as threatening to annihilate it. Hassan has made several reforms, including reconciliation talks between the government and the opposition. Her government also lifted the ban on newspapers.

Hassan has made a significant break from her predecessor. There was little civic and political space under the late president. There was violent crackdown on the opposition and the media. Hassan has placed strong emphasis on reconciliation, resilience, reform and rebuilding. She has reversed most of her predecessor’s retrogressive policies. For example, she has ended the ban on pregnant schoolgirls in classrooms. She has also opened up the country to foreign investments.

Her most recent initiative was to lift the ban on political rallies and activities. Magufuli banned opposition political rallies and activities in 2016. The unconstitutional move came at a time when the main opposition party – Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema) – was planning nationwide rallies to protest Magufuli’s repressive and authoritarian rule.

A year ago, Hassan met exiled opposition figure Tundu Lissu in Brussels, and he has returned home. She went on to play a role in the release of Chadema chairman Freeman Mbowe, who had been in prison for 18 months facing terrorism charges.

Alongside the reforms, Hassan used her first full year in office to consolidate her political base. She seems to be carefully strategising her reforms with the 2025 elections in mind. All her actions to remake Tanzania’s political landscape need to be seen in the light of those elections. She will go into the election as a clear favourite. But the reforms are a double-edged sword for the president. They have endeared her to many, but also breathed new life into the opposition.

Hassan’s power game

Hassan moved quickly to consolidate her base after the death of Magufuli in 2021. On the anniversary of her ascent to the top office, she spoke about the difficulties she had endured during the transition. She observed that her “rivals” had already begun plotting for the 2025 elections.

To strengthen her base, she brought back into the fold people who had been sidelined by Magufuli. One was former president Jakaya Kikwete. She also made several changes in her cabinet and the governing structures.

Another part of her 2025 game plan has been the overtures she’s made to the opposition. Having served as Magufuli’s vice-president, she understands the intricate political games needed to win an election.

Reform agenda

In December 2021, Hassan set up a taskforce on political reform and democracy. It met with political stakeholders and drew up a set of key policy proposals:

  • political parties should be allowed to conduct public rallies and hold internal meetings
  • an independent electoral body, free from interference from the executive
  • presidential election results should be subject to challenges in court, as the African Court on Human and People’s Rights ruled in July 2020
  • the Political Parties Act should be reformed to allow more political participation for women and special groups, such as persons with disabilities.

Divisions over the constitution

The next hurdle for Hassan is addressing discontent over constitutional reform and policy priorities. Her recent taskforce recommended completing the stalled constitution review process initiated eight years ago. After the 2014 review, a proposed constitution was passed, awaiting referendum.

Opposition politicians are opposed to the content of the proposed constitution. They are pushing for an earlier draft constitution spearheaded by constitutional reformist judge Joseph Warioba, terming it the people’s constitution.

The ACT-Wazalendo party is also pushing for the creation of an independent electoral commission before a new constitution. Chadema continues to push for a new constitution as the panacea for Tanzania’s development.

Hassan has demonstrated political skill and tact well beyond her two years’ experience as the country’s leader. Her stand on a new constitution remains tepid. She previously stated that her priority was the economy and the constitution would come later. But it would not be surprising to see her meet the opposition halfway on their demands for a new constitution.

Nicodemus Minde, is an Adjunct Lecturer, United States International University – Africa, United States International University

Courtesy: The Conversation

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The World’s First Islamic Art Biennale Shines a Light on African Artists




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By Sumayya Vally

The inaugural Islamic Arts Biennale is underway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Biennales are large and prestigious international art exhibitions held every two years.) This important new event for the Muslim world features numerous African artists. And the biennale’s artistic director is Sumayya Vally, a South African architecture professor and principal of Counterspace design studio. A rising star in the art and architecture worlds, Vally was intent on creating the biennale to connect with the diverse experiences of being Muslim through ritual, practices and philosophies. The Conversation Africa asked her five questions about the biennale.

What is the importance of an Islamic biennale?

The field of “Islamic art” was defined by Europeans in the 1800s – and hinged on geography, style and historical chronology. So it was inherited from definitions outside the faith. It’s my hope that this biennale puts forth a different definition of and for Islamic arts – one that recognises Islamic philosophies for our present and future, and one that honours the daily lived experiences of the Muslim world.

It is important that we acknowledge that Islamic faith, Islamic practice and Islamic tradition can and should be making a creative contribution to the world. The biennale’s theme of Awwal Bait refers to the reverence and symbolic unity evoked by the Ka’bah in Makkah (often referred to as the Kaaba shrine in Mecca), the centre of Islamic rituals.

A big part of what this biennale aims to demonstrate is that Islamic practice is rooted in collective rituals and experiences of community and belonging. I believe platforms like this have a role to play in understanding the profound cultural and artistic heritages around us; and in nurturing and promoting understanding between communities.

Why is this significant for African artists?

It is not often that the opportunity comes along for artists to fully immerse themselves in work that is expressly Islamic, or rooted in its rituals, philosophies and practices. In highlighting the diversity of Islamic ways of being, participating African artists contribute to the many notions of what Islam is and can be.

Men stand looking at an artwork that is an ochre coloured painting with sculptural circles raised from its surface.

Grammar Of The Earth by Moroccan artists Fatiha Zemmouri and Soukaina Aboulaoula visualises the sound of prayer. Image courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation

Could you walk us through the show?

interpreted the entrance area in the Hajj Terminal of Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport as a reception area for the world – what the city and the site has always been. It’s the gateway to hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage, and the terminal is able to accommodate up to 80,000 pilgrims. For the biennale, it contains an array of contemporary and older artefacts associated with those who service pilgrims.

From there visitors move to the indoor galleries. Their principal theme is that of the sacred direction (qiblah) to which Muslims point in prayer five times a day, every day of the year. And the focus of those rituals, the Ka’aba in Makkah. It describes the construction of our daily spiritual belonging.

Starting in a dimly lit room and ending in a brightly lit space, viewers go on a journey from darkness to light. It moves up in scale. From the call to prayer – sound on the vibrational scale – to the scale of the limbs and the body in prayer. To bodies in gathering – both in life and death. The climax of the exhibition is the scale of infinity – the door of the Ka’aba itself. The works include sound installations, ancient artefacts, religious manuscripts, photographic works and diverse contemporary installations ranging in scale.

In the outside space, within the Hijrah (migration) theme of the biennale, the works reflect on the construction of home and belonging no matter where we are in the world – the building blocks of community created through our rituals of food, sound, festival, time and season, work, worship, memory and imagination.

Many contemporary migrations in our world are synonymous with loss and displacement, and rituals become a remaking of home. Outside, works increase in scale to sculpture and built structures. Each of these is an invitation for an activation. Throughout the biennale, they will host gatherings, performances and discussions.

Could you discuss some of the African works?

It is very hard for me to single out any one piece, as each of them hold their own power in telling a unique, individual story. However, I will share some detail behind just three. Through performance, sculpture and installation, South African tapestry artist Igshaan Adams’ piece Salat al-jama’ah explores aspects of politics, race and religion as they have affected both his personal history and that of his community.

His intricate woven artworks employ a range of natural and synthetic materials, but many draw inspiration for their form and pattern from traditional Islamic textiles. For this work he collected a number of used prayer rugs from close friends and family living in the Bonteheuwel district of Cape Town. In this district, many Black and Coloured families were forcibly moved by the apartheid authorities in the 1960s.

Each rug records the imprint of its owner’s body in the act of prayer over many years. Adams has interpreted these patterns of wear using beads and semiprecious stones to create a series of new textile pieces. They speak of the value of collective worship.

Tablet shaped forms are placed together, each a different shade of black, white, browns and yellows, to form a vast mosaic.

Kolona min Torab by M’barek Bouhchichi uses clay and natural pigments from across Morocco to address diversity. Image courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation

The scale and story of Amongst Men by fellow South African artist Haroon Gunn-Salie stands out. He is named after Abdullah Haron, a South African imam (Muslim cleric). An outspoken critic of apartheid, Haron was murdered while in police custody in 1969. His funeral was attended by over 40,000 mourners, acting in defiance of the apartheid authorities.

Developed by Gunn-Salie in collaboration with Haron’s widow, Galiema, and daughter, Fatiema Haron-Masoet, Amongst Men conceptually re-creates this event. A thousand individually suspended kufi caps (headpieces worn by Muslim men across Africa and South Asia) evoke the scene at the Cape Town cemetery where Haron was buried. The accompanying audio includes extracts from one of his sermons and from a poem by his friend, South African writer James Matthews, and the voices of his daughters. Amongst Men invites the onlooker to consider the intersecting histories of Islam and resistance to colonialism and apartheid.

A couple stand in silhouette viewing a tapestry of work that is constructed from prayer rugs of different colours and textures.

                                    Salat al-jama’ah by Igshaan Adams. Image courtesy Diriyah Biennale Foundation

An installation by Tanzanian artist Lubna Chowdhary celebrates generosity and hospitality in Islam, and communal rituals of eating and praying. Its form – a long, low table – draws on the traditions of the majlis (sitting room), a place where guests are entertained, often sitting on cushions or carpets. As more guests arrive, more carpets are added, symbolising a welcome that can be extended infinitely.

The theme of boundless sharing is reflected in the structure of the table, which is inspired by open-source furniture design.

What have you taken from this experience?

Through the biennale, I hope to convey the timelessness of Islamic thinking and practice, and the diversity and breadth of the Muslim world. The philosophies of the Islamic faith offer the potential to think about the future differently.

The biennale runs until 23 April 2023.

Sumayya Vally is a Honorary Professor of Practice, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

Courtesy: The Conversation

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Why the Earthquake could bring Down Turkey’s Government




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By Nimo Omer

It has been three weeks since a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit southern Turkey and north-west Syria. The total death toll now exceeds 46,000 – over 40,000 of whom are in Turkey. A number of cities and towns have been destroyed and at least two million people have lost their homes, prompting the government to set up a makeshift network of tent camps and temporary container homes. On Saturday, Turkey announced that it had ended rescue efforts in all but two of the hardest hit provinces, in the cities of Antakya and Kahramanmaraş.

As time has gone on, shock around the disaster has turned into anger and frustration, with Turkish citizens accusing the government of evading accountability over poor building standards. The delayed and disorganised emergency response has not helped the situation, putting president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in an increasingly precarious position as the country heads towards its next general election. I spoke to Dr Karabekir Akkoyunlu, a UK-based expert in Turkish politics and lecturer at SOAS University of London, about the impact the earthquake has had on Erdoğan’s chances for another term in office. That’s right after the headlines.

What was Erdoğan’s position before the earthquake?

Over the last two years, Erdoğan has not been doing well politically. “Even though he has control over the judiciarythe media and the executive, the opposition has managed to form coalitions that work fairly effectively in key moments that have damaged him politically,” Dr Karabekir Akkoyunlu says. “For instance, in the 2019 local elections, they managed to get the municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara out of the hands of the ruling party after 24 years, which was a huge setback for them.”

Erdoğan’s falling popularity has, in large part, been because of Turkey’s weakening economy: the lira has been collapsing in value for years, recently hitting record lows against the dollar. And while inflation has fallen over the last two months, the average person in Turkey is unlikely to feel immediate relief as the country has consistently had some of the highest inflation rates in Europe – in October it reached a 24-year high of 85.5%.

To combat his poor polling, Erdoğan started announcing “last ditch populist measures,” Akkoyunlu says, that he might not be able to deliver. In October he unveiled what he called “the biggest social housing project in the history of the Turkish republic”, promising to build 500,000 new homes. “He started pulling these policies out of the bag even though they would obviously have huge costs for Turkey’s already empty state coffers,” says Akkoyunlu.

What do the public think now?

As buildings that should have been able to withstand the earthquake collapsed, the government has faced scathing criticism about the lack of oversight of construction firms that were allowed to skirt safety regulations in favour of speed and cost. “None of these were hidden things, they were flagged by civil society groups, activists and coalition politicians in the past, but they were oftentimes ignored, or, in certain cases, put in prison because of their activism,” says Akkoyunlu. Now, with a number of Turkish towns and cities reduced to rubble, the focus has moved back to what many are calling systemic corruption.

While public opinion will change as the country starts to rebuild, and Erdoğan likely takes all the credit for getting Turkey back on its feet, the government will not be able to shake this crisis off, like it often has been able to in the past. “From this vantage point of less than two weeks since the disaster, I think the government will not escape unscathed in terms of public opinion. I believe it’s going to lead to a landslide loss in public support,” says Akkoyunlu.

The elections

Erdoğan has made it clear that he has no desire to relinquish control and will do everything that he can to stay in power, and that might not always be within the framework of the democratic process. Currently, the official plans are that the elections will go ahead in May, or at the latest June, and if that happens Erdogan’s prospects do not look good. This is perhaps why he has been pushing ahead with unconstitutional moves to delay the election, saying that Turkey cannot hold an election in these conditions. “But there’s roughly five months until June and elections have been organised regularly in this country in very adverse conditions, so this is a clear attempt to evade accountability,” Akkoyunlu says.

As the centenary of the Turkish republic approaches, this coming election is a critical juncture for the country. Five more years of Erdoğan’s government would mean a further slide towards authoritarianism and cronyism. “This election will determine whether there is a last exit before the bridge for saving Turkish democracy.”

Akkoyunlu also notes that it is important to place Turkey within the global economic system. “Many international organisations have praised the drive of the Turkish economy towards growth and the construction sector has been at the centre of Turkey’s economic boom.” Akkoyunlu adds, “Turkey’s a particular case of what happens when neoliberalism and democratic erosion come together.”

The opposition – a six-party coalition – has it’s own uphill battle to climb, and is yet to announce who will be their presidential candidate. If they win, public institutions could easily still be filled with Erdoğan loyalists, which would make it difficult for them to govern. Or they might inherit hollowed out government departments that are simply not functional. Akkoyunlu says, however, that this is less “about things becoming perfect and more about taking one step to stop the worst from happening.”

Erdoğan’s government came in two decades ago promising to clean up Turkey, after a series of corruption scandals, economic crises, and a devastating earthquake. “I think it’s a very tragic picture,” Akkoyunlu adds. “It seems Turkey has come full circle, and in some ways, in terms of democracy, it has backtracked.”

Courtesy: The Guardian

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From Mud-Brick Structures to Modern Masterpieces: The Incredible Evolution of Mosque Architecture!




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The entire earth is a mosque for Muslims, but the physical masjid has also played an important spiritual and educational role for Muslims throughout Islamic history. The architectural evolution of mosques is a fascinating journey through time, tracing the development of Islamic art and architecture from the humble beginnings of mud-brick structures to the grandeur and splendor of modern mosques all around the globe.

Masajids are places of worship for Muslims and are an integral part of Islamic culture and history. They serve not only as places of prayer but also as centers of learning, community gathering, and social events. As such, the architecture of mosques has evolved to reflect the cultural and artistic traditions of the regions in which they are built, as well as the technical and technological advances of their eras.

Architectural Evolution of Masajids

The earliest mosques were simple mud-brick structures that were built by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his Companions in Mecca and Madina in the early 7th century. These early mosques consisted of open-air courtyards with a covered space for prayer, facing Mecca. The architecture of these mosques was simple and functional, reflecting the modesty and simplicity of the early Islamic community.

Over time, as Islam spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, mosque architecture began to evolve and develop its unique style. The Umayyad Caliphate, which ruled from Damascus between 661 and 750 CE, was responsible for the construction of some of the most iconic early Islamic buildings. The Qubbat al-Ṣakhrah, in Jerusalem, built by an Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān in 691 CE, is one such example and is considered to be one of the earliest examples of Islamic architecture.

During the Islamic Golden Age, which lasted from the 8th to the 14th century, mosque architecture reached its pinnacle of beauty and sophistication. This period saw the development of a unique Islamic style, characterized by intricate geometric patterns, calligraphy, and vegetal motifs, as well as the use of materials such as marble, stone, and tile. This era gave rise to some of the most iconic masjids in the world, including the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain, the Alhambra Palace in Granada, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

As Islamic civilization declined in the 15th and 16th centuries, mosque architecture went through a period of stagnation. However, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, mosque architecture once again flourished. The Ottomans developed their distinctive style, characterized by the use of domes and minarets, intricate tile work, and the use of calligraphy and Islamic motifs. The most famous example of Ottoman mosque architecture is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul, which was built in the early 17th century.

In the modern era, mosque architecture has continued to evolve and adapt to changing times and cultural influences. Many modern mosques are designed to incorporate traditional Islamic architectural elements while also incorporating modern materials and technology. One such example is the Faisal Mosque in Pakistan, which is built entirely out of steel and glass and features a striking modern design.

The evolution of mosque architecture is a testament to the cultural and artistic traditions of Islamic civilization. From the simple mud-brick structures of the early Islamic community to the grandeur and splendor of modern mosques, the architecture of mosques has evolved to reflect the changing times and the artistic and technological advances of their eras. Today, mosques continue to be a central feature of Islamic culture and society, and their architecture remains an important part of Islamic art and culture.

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