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Religion and Nationalism in Ukraine

It’s finals week here at Georgetown.  Holed up in a Healy conference room, I’m happy to say I’ve finished my first paper.  Reflecting my interest in religion and politics, my chosen topic of “Religion and Nationalism in Ukraine” piqued my curiosity.  If you’re interested too, here’s a link to my paper.

It covers the role of religion in inspiring the ongoing Euromaidan protests and influencing Russia’s aggressive response.  I conclude with some policy recommendations for the U.S. and Europe.

When in Rome…see the Pope

“Pray for me.”

Those were the only three words I could understand, a short plea spoken from the lips of Pope Francis himself.

We knew he didn’t speak very much English, and for a few minutes we anxiously waited in the Vatican chambers, wondering when he would arrive and how he would address us.  Watched carefully by two Swiss guards in their circus-colored robes, we paced around the room – some posing by the papal seat for pictures, others gawking at the glorious frescoed ceiling, and everyone very much excited for our private audience with the renowned Church leader.

His words were simple, and his phrase was charged with humility.  Known for taking public transportation, refusing to live in the luxurious papal apartment, and infusing the Church with a call to simplicity and service, here is the holy father acknowledging his own weakness and asking for our support.  Here is a man so full of prayer and blessing and baby-kissing, and yet he is asking me to pray for him.  

How exactly did I get to this place?  Just last week, I was in Rome for the Berkley Center’s Christianity and Freedom Conference, a large gathering of researchers and academics at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome.  It was a rather unexpected trip across the world.  A student assistant had dropped out at the last minute, and I was fortunate enough to take his spot just one week before departure.  Final exams could wait!

In addition to some logistical support, I was charged with bringing over the official Berkley Center camera, making me the unofficial cameraman for my unexpected Italian adventure.  And there I was, standing about an arms-length from the Pope, snapping photos and trying to pretend like I knew what I was doing.  Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Some photos from the visit:

That's me in the back center in ready position!

That’s me in the back center in ready position!

with the papal seat

with the papal seat

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with Dr. Farr, one of our project leaders from Georgetown

with Kevin and Kyle - two of the guys that put it all together!

with Kevin and Kyle – two of the guys that put it all together!

and some other photos from around the city…

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finally, reuniting with some Italian friends from Copenhagen!

finally, reuniting with some Italian friends from Copenhagen! thanks to Gianluca and Davide for showing us around

3 months later: my delayed culture shock

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Lots of students claim to experience “culture shock” upon returning home from study abroad.  I have heard the same stories over and over – how the people are so much more pleasant in Denmark, how the food is so much tastier in Rome, or how Washington and New York are not as great as people make them out to be.  One of my friends from Copenhagen admitted he could barely leave his room during the first few days of summer.  Another vows to return to Europe as soon as he graduates next year.

Frankly, I thought they were being ridiculous.  Studying in Europe was a joy in so many ways, but I really looked forward to reconnecting with home after my crazy five-month adventure.  I missed staring at the glowing lights of Healy Hall every night.  I missed country music night at Tombs.  I missed seeing signs in English and the heat of D.C. summer.  But most of all, I missed something I liked to call the “edge” – that aggressive, go-getter mentality that I proudly considered a hallmark of American culture.

At least, that is what I thought I missed.  After moving back to D.C. and starting my ten-week internship at a defense consulting firm, I quickly realized that above everything else, the edge hurt.  I just wanted to slow down – slow down during my fifty-hour work weeks in my glass-plated office building; slow down during my morning bike rides over the Key Bridge; slow down all the applications and essays bouncing around in my head.  I wanted to take a break from my research and email-writing and unglue my eyes from the hazy glow of the computer screen.

Although the proverbial “culture shock” might have hit me a few months later than everyone else, I think it hit me hard.  I feel overly relaxed in tough situations.  I am less opinionated and go-getting than my coworkers and peers.  I am perfectly fine with sitting on my back porch on a Friday night, doing nothing in particular.

Yes, it appears that Copenhagen has mellowed the heck out of me.  It might have been the Danes’ quiet personalities or their obsession with the candle-light “hygge.”  It might have been the slow, casual way they walk on the street.  It might have been all the social energy and group cohesion that visitors always seem to notice.  I am starting to act like I am working and studying in Denmark for the rest the summer.  I am coming home earlier from work and spending more time with friends.  I am waking up early just so that I can sit outside on the porch in the precious, long hours of sunlight.  I am walking slower and breathing easier.

But somehow my newfound complacency feels out-of-place.  At Georgetown it sometimes seems like everyone is on a mission, breaking their backs at an unpaid internship or cranking out a new brilliant thesis in Lau.  Everyone has an opinion about charged topics, whether it is the handful of Supreme Court decisions this summer or ongoing debates about homosexuality and Catholicism on campus.  There are some very strong, outspoken personalities at Georgetown, and it can often get overwhelming.  Maybe it’s the natural product of a very educated, eloquent student body.  Maybe it’s one of the many consequences of living in D.C.

Whatever it is, I have grown tired of it all.  When I ask what you do, don’t tell me your office job at the investment bank or trendy nonprofit.  Let’s not talk about politics or work for once.  Things can get so serious and testy, even over a drink.  In most cases, an argument about the DOMA decision or Obama’s energy speech is not worth shouting over.

with friends at 4th of July brunchThis summer, I want to step back from that edge.  It is our final summer before graduation, for goodness sake.  It is our last time we can take a three month “break” in between semesters.  I do not think you have to go Copenhagen to realize the benefits of slowing down.  It reduces stress and recharges your batteries.  It checks conflict and fosters good relationships.

In one of my favorite commercials, Kingsford Charcoal urges us to “slow down and grill.”  As this summer winds down, let’s see if we can adopt that mentality.  Once school starts up again, we can crank it back into high gear.

Course evaluations

It’s final exam time already!  In total, I’ve got 5 research papers and 1 sit-down test.  Sounds like a big deal, but I’m the type that rarely gets stressed out.  All you’ve got to do is show up to class, pay attention to the teacher, ask some good questions, and everything will turn out just fine.

Speaking of those classes, I think it’s a good time to do some end-of-semester evaluations.  To be honest, but I ultimately chose DIS because of the wealth of courses that are offered.  Although you’ll have dreams of traveling around Europe and visiting all the fun cities and tourist attractions, that tells less than half of the story.  Let’s get real – with the exception of a handful of travel breaks here and there (I had 3 weeks off and a couple long weekends), you’ll be spending lots of time in the classroom, listening to presentations, writing assignments, and studying for tests.  Plus, you can get to most of the popular European destinations from just about anywhere – it doesn’t matter if you’re studying in Copenhagen or London or Barcelona, you’ll always be within flying distance of France, Italy, Germany, and even Ukraine.

That’s why it’s so important to not overlook the “study” part of study abroad.  Choose a program   that sounds academically interesting, not a city that sounds like fun.  When push came to shove, it wasn’t Copenhagen or the winter weather or the “world’s happiest country” that made me come to Denmark.  It was my countless hours searching courses online, researching the faculty’s experience, reading student testimonials.  Indeed, registering was so difficult because everything sounded so interesting – like Nordic Mythology, Humanitarian Law, Kierkegaard’s Authorship, Muslims and the West, etc.  I scrapped other destinations because the course selection did not even come close.  Mohyla Academy in Kiev had just 5 or 6 classes to choose from, and most of them were not even in my major.  Maybe it works for a Graduate program, but for now it was inadequate.

Here’s a ranking of the courses I chose, from 1 (best) to 5 (disappointing):

1. Humanitarian Law & Armed Conflict (core course)

with my 2 professors - Nicolai and Ulrik

with my 2 professors – Nicolai and Ulrik

  • Topics: military law, noncombatants, genocide, terrorism, case studies on bin Laden and Palestine
  • Fun faculty fact: both Nicolai and Ulrik served in Danish military as legal advisers, stationed in Kosovo and Afghanistan
  • Pros: fascinating 5-day study tour to Bosnia, thought-provoking research papers, intelligent class discussions
  • Cons: dense readings, lots of theory at beginning of semester, toughest class
  • Overall: the Bosnian trip had a profound impact on me (I firmly believe that this core course trip is the best one in DIS, because we had so much personal interaction with locals and tons of critical analysis; politics+law+religion = perfect combination), and the course makes me more inclined to pursue a career in law. Professors became some of my closest mentors at DIS and incredibly easy to talk to. *If you have any interest in law/politics, please take this course!!*

2. Muslims in the West

  • Topics: cartoon crisis, hijab, women’s rights, democracy & Islam
  • Fun faculty fact: Jakob is young, energetic, and loves to play “devil’s advocate”
  • Pros: visits to Islamic center and talks with Danish Muslims (including Imam Pedersen), lots of classroom discussion (Jakob often stops his lectures so that we can debate and ask questions)
  • Cons: relativism and failure to make normative claims was frustrating
  • Overall: Islam is a hot issue in Denmark, especially with the growing immigrant community. The professor really made this class great, although I’m still not sure if any solid conclusions emerged from this class.  Is everyone right?

3. Russia Past and Present 

with Mette and Jon at the airport

with Mette and Jon at the airport

  • Topics: Russian history, religion, art, literature; week-long trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow in March
  • Fun faculty fact: Jon is the official Russian translator for the Queen of Denmark, owns his own travel agency, and is married to a Ukrainian (!)
  • Pros: Jon is a freaking genius about Russia.  Our study tour was out-of-this-world (many thanks to Mette, too!), I asked so many questions and Jon always had an answer.  Reading Crime and Punishment was a great social commentary, and in-class discussions are always provoking.
  • Cons: class only meets once per week, sometimes felt like the class could have been 1 instead of 3 credits
  • Overall: I have a new passion for Russia/East European politics (wrote 2 research papers about the Russian-Ukrainian relationship). Once again, the professor really made this course great.

4. Partners & Rivals: EU-US Relations

  • Topics: security, trade & monetary policy, environment, leadership
  • Fun faculty fact: Jacob is the former Transportation Minister for the Danish government, has worked in politics for some 20 years
  • Pros: case-study presentations forced class participation, interesting lecture topics, met with Jacob twice as class representative, visited U.S. Embassy
  • Cons: lots of questions unanswered, lectures sometimes repetitive, very unenthusiastic students inhibited class discussion, often pro-European mindset
  • Overall: this class had a lot of potential, but the lack of participation was disappointing

5. Danish Language & Culture

  • Topics: Danish history, language, cultural studies
  • Fun faculty fact: Charlotte understands that Danish is hard
  • Pros: Studying ‘Jante’s Law’ and Danish tribal identity hints at the philosophy behind the welfare system and social dynamics
  • Cons: one semester is far, far too short to make any significant progress on learning Danish, and I can learn most of the “culture” by just living here and walking around
  • Overall: not happy that Georgetown required me to take this; sacrificed awesome courses like Kierkegaard and Nordic Mythology because of this requirement

Politics or religion?

No discussion about Bosnia would be complete without reference to my favorite subjects: religion and politics.  As I mentioned in my pre-departure post, the Bosnian War involved three major parties: Bosniak Muslims (majority of Sarajevo and about 43% in Bosnia pre-war), Bosnian Serbs (backed by Serbia, roughly 30%), and Bosnian Croats (backed by Croatia, roughly 15%).  The ethnic mix seems like a powder keg, destined to explode.

It sure exploded.  But why?  The convenient explanation is that different religions cannot get along, especially when they are bound in an uneasy political union.  My initial impression was that Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats harbored an inherent antagonism, rooted in the different beliefs, histories, and cultures that make up their identity.

The religious element is so visceral that it’s hard to ignore.  At Srebrenica, Serb commander Ratkum Mladic proclaimed the following: (warning: contains graphic images)

Indeed, it seems like religion was a huge factor in much of this bloodshed.

Yet, my experiences show that this may not have been the case.  In fact, all of the religious and political leaders that we met argued that the Bosnian War was not a religious conflict.  Serbian Orthodox priest Mitar Tarasic said confidently: “It was not a religious war.  It was just war.  We had conferences and calls for peace, but the politicians would not listen.”  It was a war of all against all.  Bosniaks were fighting Serbs, Serbs were fighting Croats, Bosniaks were fighting Bosniaks, and so on.  You get the picture.

Bosniak students told me they had Croat and Serbian friends, and that the three communities had cooperated for many generations.  The Jewish community leader described how he opened a soup kitchen for all people in Sarajevo, serving 350 meals per day with just 2 pots and 50 liters of water.  When Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1990, it never intended nor foresaw a military conflict.  And their cultures are not all that different.

The conflict was largely political.  Politics is a dirty business – and when mixed with religion, it becomes a lethal combination.  It is a game of manipulating ethnic/religious differences to achieve political goals – in this case, to crush Bosnian independence and reunite it with Yugoslavia (which Serbia claimed to represent).

One student was rather blunt, saying: “We need the older politicians to die.  They are teaching us to hate each other.”  There is definitely optimism for the future; most of the young adults identified not as Bosniaks or Croats or Serbs, but simply as “Bosnians.”  They have put the war behind them, and look forward to building a nation no longer characterized solely by their family backgrounds.

Perhaps the student is being a bit rash.  But the current political system certainly needs to change, for it is defined far too much in narrow ethnic terms.  If you thought the U.S. political system was a mess, think again.  In Bosnia, there are three presidents who rule at once: one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.  The country is divided into two regions based on ethnicity: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (mostly Bosniak/Croat) and the Republic of Srpska (mostly Serb).  Cantons and cities further divide the country.  The Dayton Accords have essentially institutionalized ethnic divisions.  It is amazing that the country has not blown up once again.

So yes – politics suck, and they have created quite a mess in the Balkans.  Be wary of those who immediately blame religion as the cause of wars and conflicts.  Look beyond it – see who’s controlling the strings, who stands to profit, and what are the ultimate goals.

Going numb in Bosnia

Sarajevo

A single blog post does not do Bosnia justice.  I cannot fully convey my experience in Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Srebrenica unless I took you there myself – I learned too much, spoke with too many people, opened my eyes too wide.  I Skyped with my parents for an hour and a half when I returned to Copenhagen on Tuesday, and even that was grossly insufficient.

To kick things off, here’s a rundown of my itinerary and some of the places we visited (part of my Justice & Human Rights Program):

  • Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Court of War Crimes
  • European Union Delegation
  • Meeting with mayor of Tuzla
  • International Commission of Missing Persons
  • Srebrenica (site of genocide)
  • Meeting with Croat, Jewish, and Serb representatives
  • Dinners, cafes, and parties with local students

Quite a lot was packed into our 5-day trip, and once again I have realized why exactly I chose to study abroad at DIS.  We weren’t there to just sightsee or party at local clubs.  We were there to experience first-hand the issues we had read about in class and seen on TV.  I’ll try to sum up some of the amazing things I learned:

People have some amazing stories to tell.  It hit me like a brick wall; talking with local students – many of them the same age as me – was undoubtedly the most striking part of my experience.  During the Bosnian War (1990-1994), Sarajevo was under siege for four years, surrounded by the Serbian army.  Those who stayed in the city went through hell.  Food was rationed, cigarettes became money (they love to smoke!), and the civilians endured constant shelling and sniper fire.  Just imagine being a young child, maybe five or six years old, and seeing things like…

  • Your father shot in the leg while picking blackberries with him
  • Grandma killed by a sniper while buying bread
  • Having to crawl on your knees whenever you used the bathroom because you could get shot through the window
  • Going to school in your basement
  • Cemeteries, maternity wards, and churches getting bombed
  • Driving through the mountains in a crowded van in the middle of the night, with a older lady in the back crying and screaming as they tried to cross the border (personal account of our tour guide)
  • Not knowing if your Serb or Croat neighbor was going to shoot or save you

I stared in disbelief.  Seriously, are we living in the same world?  Am I actually talking to you right now?   It is amazing what some people have lived through, and how big of a cakewalk my life has been in comparison.  In what was called “Sniper Alley,” marksmen would camp out in abandoned buildings and deliberately target any civilians who were out in the open.  The so-called “Bosnian Romeo and Juliet” – a couple trying to flee across the river in “Sniper Alley” – were gunned down during the night.  Their bodies lay there for seven days.

The river was the main front of the siege, with Serbs holding the left side of the river. Snipers would camp in these buildings

The river was the main front of the siege, with Serbs holding the left side of the river. Snipers would camp in these buildings

There are plenty of reminders.  Next to the Holiday Inn and some new “skyscrapers” are buildings still pierced with bullet holes and broken walls.  Cemeteries roll up and down the mountains.  Amidst incredible beauty, scars remain.

Of course, there were happy stories, too.  The students smiled as they described how they collected artillery shrapnel, rode around in wheelbarrows (mistakenly called “wheelchairs”) and went to the soup kitchen – which was operated by Jews, Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks!  One guy even told me how his grandfather was rescued; dragged out of his home to a firing squad, his Serb neighbor threw him into the long grass of a nearby field when no one was looking, saving his friend from certain death.

Later we took a trip to Srebrenica, the site of a brutal massacre.  8000 Bosniak men were herded like animals and killed, their bodies thrown in mass graves.  Our guide, who was seventeen at the time, was lucky to escape by surviving the “Death March” – as several thousand men fled through the mountains into free territory.  At the International Commission of Missing Persons, we saw the bones of those that did not survive, neatly shelved in white plastic bags in the giant storage room.  I covered my nose and stood in delirium.

gravestones at Srebrenica

gravestones at Srebrenica

The experience was numbing.  It all felt so direct, so shocking, so real.  I’ve been to killing fields before – in Auschwitz, Gettysburg, Normandy.  But this was somehow different.  I’m not just looking at pictures and videos.  There is no historical or generational gap here.  I’m talking to the actual people that lived through this hell, and many of them are my age.  I can relate to them a little bit more.  These are my peers.

And I just keep thinking how damn lucky I am.  I was never afraid of running around or playing baseball outside.  I didn’t go to school in a dark basement.  I was never suspicious that my neighbors would stab me in the back.  I wasn’t going to get snipered in the middle of the street.

It’s amazing what some people had to live through.  I asked a billion questions on this trip, and I want to ask a billion more.

Raining 3’s at 3 AM

Hoyas win!  Hoyas win!  Hoyas win! (for those of you that don’t get the reference, watch this).  What a game last night – a double overtime 79-78 victory over Big East rival UConn.  It’s Georgetown’s 10th straight win, and they remain in first place in the Big East conference.  Otto Porter is Mr. Clutch once again, scoring the go-ahead basket with less than 10 seconds to play.  And all of this, of course, coming off his 33-point barrage at Syracuse last weekend.  This picture is my new official screen-saver:

HOYA SAXA!

HOYA SAXA!

Despite living so far away, I power through the 6-hour time difference and remain dedicated to my Hoyas.  Yes, I pay a price.  I’m currently living on less than 4 hours of sleep and 1 cup of coffee, but it is absolutely worth it. (The Donald only sleeps 4 hours per day, so today I’m in good company.)

Meanwhile, the semester whizzes along like my morning bus, and I’ve been so busy over the past few days that they start blending into each other.  I hate measuring time, but its sort of inevitable when you realize you only have 16 weeks here.  Weeks have become my standard measurement.  Not days or hours, but weeks.

This week was filled with seminars, guest lecturers, high school visits, and papers.  I just finished working on a research project analyzing EU international security policy.  White boards definitely come in handy:

EU-US group project

When analyzing the evolution of European security policy post-WWII, we divided it into 3 periods, and tried to find the “defining events” from each period.  For example, the Arab Spring in the 2000s, the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, and the Suez Crisis in 1956.

I hope you’re not getting bored with all of these details, but I can’t help it because all of my courses absolutely fascinate me!  In Humanitarian Law, we’re currently studying the legality of detaining noncombatants at Guantanamo, and the difference between an international and a non-international armed conflict.  Sounds a little technical, but trust me – it’s awesome.  For anyone interested in the Justice and Human Rights program, you can even check out my essay about the bin Laden raid here, just to get a taste of the kind of analysis we’re doing.  Conclusion: although I support the undercover raid that took out Osama, the U.S. did violate international law (but that doesn’t mean anyone is going to do anything about it…after all, we are the United States of America).

So as you can see, the academics here are excellent.  On a typical day, I’m not simply wandering around the city looking for things to do.  Instead, I’ve got lots of things on the schedule: seminars about the Armenian Genocide in Turkey and the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska, guest lectures with Muslim women about wearing the hijab (head-scarf), visits to high schools to discuss stereotypes, American politics, and all sorts of weird topics with jittery teenagers.

My mind is spinning – and that’s certainly not a bad thing.

Politics and religion holding hands – at least historically

Today was the first day of classes, so as much as I would love talking about all of the exciting things I did over the past few days, I think it’s time to get scholarly!!

Religion: it’s one of the things that fascinates me the most in Denmark.  Though Muslims are one of the fastest-growing populations in Denmark, over 90% of Danes are Lutherans.  I’m paying most of my attention to the Lutherans – who, though they pay taxes to the church, attend baptisms and marriages in the church, and would probably identify as “Christian,” do not actually believe in the theological underpinnings of the Christian faith. (At least, this is the stipulation; see the Research page for more info).

As the semester goes on, I will share personal experiences, interviews, and observations that can help me uncover this issue.  Yesterday was the first of such encounters.  While touring the Amelienborg Palace (home of the Danish royal family), I had an interesting discussion with Stefan, our guide:

nice pants

(by the way, nice pants)

Stefan explained how religion is an integral part of the Danish identity.  Beautiful cathedrals are scattered throughout Copenhagen; religion is a defining part of Danish art and architecture; according to the constitution, the ruling monarch must be a member of the Danish National Church (it is essentially illegal for the royal family to be anything but Lutheran); monarchs are coronated inside churches, and baptize their heirs.

Indeed, there is a strong historical bond between political and religious authority in Denmark.  This relationship is reflected in the design of Amelienborg.  As Stefan explained, there are 3 main “pillars” of the palace – the House of God, the King, and Eternity, which are symbolically aligned through the center of the Palace.  God comes first, represented by Frederik’s Church, seen in the background.  The King (Frederick V, who built the palace) sits on his horse in the middle of the square, looking up towards the church (drawing his power from God):

Royal palace - God then king

Behind the King is “Eternity” – before the Opera House was built, it was a vast, open space that reinforced the presence of God’s divine, infinite nature (and also mankind’s hope of reaching eternity):

Royal palace - King then eternity

Religion is certainly a part of the “Danish ethos,” as I like to call it.  It is part of their historical and cultural identity.  It is tradition.  Christianity seems deeply intertwined with political power.

Whether it is theological is another question altogether.

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