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A Woman on a Mission

Elizabeth Prodromou, SM ‘89, PhD ‘93, advises national policymakers on the relationship between religion and politics.

Once upon a time in the early 1990s, political scientist Elizabeth Prodromou, SM ‘89, PhD ‘93, got no respect—or perhaps just the sort of respect grudgingly meted out to people who work in obscure academic fields. She was studying the mutual influence of religion and politics in southeastern Europe and the Balkan countries and teaching at Princeton University. However, back then “the interest of social scientists in religion had been largely dominated by a single perspective—namely, that religion was either irrelevant to or problematic for modernity,” Prodromou says. Moreover, policymakers didn’t show much interest in learning how an understanding of religion could help them with security matters or worldwide efforts to promote democracy.

The wars in the former Yugoslavia changed that. Suddenly Prodromou, who is now an associate director of Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs, came to wider attention. She disagreed with the prevailing “ancient-­hatreds thesis,” which posits that age-old ethnic and religious enmity were preventing the region’s populations from coexisting peacefully. Prodromou, along with other dissenting scholars, said there were more-complex factors at play, including questions of economic and military control, Western involvement, and the quality of local leadership. At first, Prodromou says, foreign-policy players and many of her students and academic peers met such ideas with “outright dismissal.” But then, in the years after the United States bombed Serbia, she says, alternatives to the ancient-hatreds thesis started to get more of a hearing.

Now her intellectual stock has soared. In October 2004, Prodromou was appointed by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). This nine-member commission, created during the Clinton administration to advise the president, the secretary of state, and Congress on matters of global religious freedom, came to prominence in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, which married the issues of religious freedom and security. “Nine-eleven drove home to us, as Americans, the need to take these linkages seriously,” Prodromou says. Now, part of the commission’s work is to identify “countries of particular concern”—that is, nations that egregiously violate their citizens’ religious rights—which the president is required by law to address using the tools of economic and political persuasion.

Prodromou knew about the links between religious and political freedom long before she was appointed to the commission. “I was raised as a Greek Orthodox Christian, and my father and maternal grandparents were immigrants, from Cyprus and Greece, respectively,” she says. “My parents and grandparents were examples for me of the importance of political freedom—democracy, more specifically, in America—for the protection of religious freedom and human rights.”

These thoughts were percolating when, after earning a bachelor’s degree in international relations and history and a master’s in law and diplomacy from Tufts University, Prodromou came to MIT in 1987 for another master’s degree and her PhD. She wrote a dissertation on church-state relations in 1980s Greece.

Yes, her CV is cluttered with honors—fellowships at Harvard and New York University; a listing in Who’s Who of American Women; membership in Phi Beta Kappa—but it hardly sums up her life. To begin to do that, you need to consider a typical day. She wakes at 6:00 a.m. and breakfasts on international news and policy journals. Then she and her husband, Alexandros Kyrou, who teaches East European and Russian history at Salem State College, get their young daughter, Sophia, ready for school. During the day, Prodromou teaches, researches, and writes at Boston University; sometimes volunteers at her daughter’s school; and serves on the parish council of Saint Athanasius Greek Orthodox Church in Arlington, MA. Then there are the USCIRF conference calls and trips to Washington, DC—not to mention the international travel that the commission sometimes requires.

Amid these competing demands, Prodromou’s teaching remains exceptional, according to her colleagues. “I think her great strength is that she’s a very demanding but very nurturing person,” says Robert Hefner, associate director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs. Hefner says Prodromou succeeds as a teacher because she is “unflaggingly energetic” and has “high intellectual expectations.”

Students also recognize the value of her teaching. Last spring she bumped into a former Princeton student, now studying at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who said that the
contrarian ideas she expressed in her class on peace-building in Yugoslavia have come to make great sense to him. This was especially satisfying for Prodromou because, between his programs at Prince­ton and Harvard, the student took time off to serve in the U.S. military. Prodromou’s mission, one might say, has been accomplished.

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