President Paul Kagame was inaugurated into his third term as Rwandan president on August 18, 2017, just three days before I landed in Kigali. As an American raised in Hong Kong, my initial reaction upon learning that the president was elected with 98.63 percent of the vote was to suspect corruption. Furthermore, neither of the two opposition candidates amassed even a single percentage point of the vote. This suspicion of corruption was compounded by the U.S. State Department’s statement condemning the “irregularities observed during voting,” and knowledge that the Rwandan constitution was amended in 2015 to allow President Kagame to stay in power until 2034. Coincidentally, 98 percent of voters had also agreed with this constitutional revision.
“Machismo.” The word rings loud in my ears as I walk down the street each day, receiving numerous catcalls. I hear catcalls of “rubia. hermosa,” which means "beautiful blonde girl" in English. These catcalls are the soundtrack to my daily commute. Seemingly inconsequential words that shouldn’t roll off my back so easily but, after almost two months, are the unfortunate background noise that I’ve adopted here in Buenos Aires. In fact, it seems as though every man in this city has been instructed to shout at women. This includes truck drivers, construction workers, shop owners, and taxi drivers—the list goes on. Yet, interestingly enough, I have yet to see a woman reach out to a man in this way. Why are women singled out in such an obvious and consistent way? In Argentina, the concept of machismo, that men are aggressively dominant over women, is an active part of the culture that has defined gender stereotypes for centuries. Although catcalling occurs occasionally in D.C., its frequency and fortitude is much lower than in a country where this type of machismo prevails.
This summer, the Religious Freedom Research Project funded five doctoral students exploring the sources, development, and consequences of religious freedom. Through original research, they made new observations about the relationship between religious liberty and other fundamental freedoms; its importance for democracy; and/or its role in social and economic development, international diplomacy, and countering violent religious extremism. The Berkley Forum features their reports.
I absolutely hated my first day in Spain. The excitement of traveling to Europe wore off about two hours into my red eye. I realized that I didn’t feel well and I couldn’t sleep at all. I arrived to a dreary morning in Madrid. I carried ridiculously large suitcases and backpacks; the days before I left were hectic, so I was in no way prepared or packed properly. After a series of “Ls” that day, including getting stuck in pouring rain and hail as the drought in Madrid ended momentarily, I desperately needed a nap. However, I arrived at my residence only to realize that I did not have any sheets. At this moment, I was a mess and I felt unsettled. I felt as if I had no idea how I was going to live here for four months, which is not my usual attitude at all.
“Remember, try not to stare,” warned my Danish language and culture professor as we walked through the front entrance of Det Sociale Hus (the Social House), the largest drug consumption center in Denmark. I had little time to process her statement—seconds later I was watching several men smoking what I learned later was crack cocaine and heroin. My professor and I were maybe 50 feet away from the men, who were separated from us by a glass barrier. I could see what they were doing quite clearly. That was the point.
After studying religion and culture for two years as a theology major and working in the Office of Campus Ministry, I’ve grown to appreciate the American understanding of religious freedom. Religion, for many, is a marker of identity rather than a distinguishing feature. I recognize that this isn’t true of all people. Religious freedom, and safety, has limits. Being free to practice religion doesn’t protect from religious-based hate crimes stemming from Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Even at Georgetown, which prides itself on the Jesuit values of interreligious understanding and community in diversity, students can find their religious identity under threat; look at the swastikas found on Georgetown’s main campus last week.
The tale of government restrictions on religious freedom in the post-Soviet space makes for depressing reading as the pace of imposing tighter controls on various minority religious communities continues largely unabated. The case of Russia perhaps prompts the greatest concern. There, various laws and regulations restricting religious freedom coupled with increasing social pressure among Russian Orthodox hierarchs, theologians, and institutions to conform to the present order of things within the Moscow Patriarchate have seriously choked religious expression. Increasing restrictions on so-called “extremists”—be they Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hare Krishna devotees, or Muslims who embrace the teachings of Said Nursi—shape the landscape. Recent amendments to the 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, including the July 2015 provision which abolished the ability of unregistered religious communities to operate without state approval and the July 2016 amendment that restricted the ill-defined concept of missionary activity, are clear indicators of the limited ability of Russian citizens to exercise any semblance of genuine religious liberty.
Colombia is experiencing one of its greatest moments of contradiction in its history as a republic. Last year, the government signed a peace agreement with the oldest guerrilla movement in Latin America, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), which is in the process of becoming a political party called the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Comun, FARC). At the same time, public opinion of state institutions is at an all-time low. Specifically, a recent Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Colombians disapprove of their Supreme Court, 83 percent disapprove of the judiciary system, 87 percent disapprove of the political parties, and 72 percent disapprove of President Juan Manuel Santos, winner of Nobel Peace Prize.
Every year, 30 times now since Pope John Paul II brought religious leaders together in Assisi in 1986, the lay Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio organizes an ambitious meeting that they call a prayer, or a pilgrimage, for peace. The meetings draw a cadre of recognized world religious leaders: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Shinto, Buddhist, and so on. World political leaders also attend. The meetings combine a never-ceasing flow of inspirational and aspirational words, warm and symbolic hugs among different leaders, some intellectual challenges and grist, moving personal witness, countless back channel efforts to address bitter conflicts, and pageantry: there is music and large candelabras that travel from place to place. This is a phenomenal organizational effort by a unique group that is deeply Italian in origin and verve but truly global in its reach and vision. Literally thousands of volunteers care for each invited guest, translate the events into at least six languages, smile when it rains, and facilitate networking by bringing people together.
On August 11 and 12, 2017, the country was gripped by the chaos and violence unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia, as thousands of Ku Klux Klan members, neo-Nazis, and other white nationalists descended upon the town. The Charlottesville events not only brought our country's deeply rooted racism once more to the fore of national attention, but also highlighted ongoing anti-Semitic currents in our society.