Religion's Role in Building Stronger States

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Religion's Role in Building Stronger States

Posted on: 26th March 2015
Denis Dragovic
University of Melbourne, Lecturer

Much has been said of religion's role in shaping nations. Over the centuries religion has helped to establish common bonds that tie communities together. As institutions, religions have helped preserve the history, language and culture of a people, and as sources of belief have served as the foundation of common values. But what of the state? How can religion contribute to strengthening the functions of government?

For failed states to rebuild or weak states to strengthen there are three requirements for success—legitimacy of authority, establishment of security and provision of basic needs. Attention to each of these is essential, as failure in one can lead to the collapse of others. In circumstances where the state is weak, underprepared or ill-equipped, one option is for governments to reach out to other centres of authority, drawing upon their resources and standing to help strengthen the state.

Religious leaders are highly trusted figures in society: their representatives are embedded in villages and towns spread throughout the community and their institutions control considerable resources. These sources of influence make religion a particularly powerful ally and gives it the potential to significantly impact local and international statebuilding efforts.

Religions can powerfully contribute to states' legitimacy.

In my book Religion and Post-Conflict Statebuilding I match the characteristics of religion and religious institutions to the three requirements of successful statebuilding, revealing the ways in which religion can contribute. For the establishment of security it is through the adjudication of disputes, building of social capital and spreading of civic values, and for the provision of basic needs, building community solidarity and providing humanitarian assistance.

However, a more nuanced example of religion's role in statebuilding is the question of legitimacy. In Western societies, legitimacy of authority is usually associated with the legality of actions. In societies in which customs play an important role, however, there are other aspects to legitimacy. David Beetham, Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds, has identified two of these: a set of inter-generational rules regarded as fair by the community they are applied to, and an expression of consent acknowledging the new holders of power.

Religion has the potential to contribute to each of these aspects of legitimacy. For example, centuries of Islamic jurisprudence has identified rules around how the legitimate transfer of power can occur. Most religions have a body of teachings that transcend generations and can be used as reference points against which the laws of the day are judged. Meanwhile, expressions of consent can be garnered by way of those senior clerics who hold the trust and respect of the people.

Efforts to legitimise the state must be focused upon the views of the people, rather than against the abstract ideals of foreigners through such mechanisms as UN resolutions, 'best practice' or international law. For example, the Loya Jirga ('grand assembly' in Pashto) held in Afghanistan in 2002 drew upon traditional customs to establish legitimacy for Hamid Karzai. Meanwhile, in Iraq it came to the senior most religious figure, the Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, to define a process for the legitimate ascension to authority of a new government after the preferred approach, international stakeholders selecting a Governing Council and hand picking experts to write a constitution, failed to garner popular legitimacy. In addition, the Ayatollah's political intervention reached across the sectarian and ethnic lines of Iraq because of his standing as a respected religious leader.

Knowing how religious groups can contribute does not mean they will.

But knowing how religious groups can contribute does not assure government authorities and international actors that they will. It is wrong to assume that the goals of secular statebuilders or national governments align with religious leaders.

How a religion interprets certain theological questions determines at least in part how it will allocate its resources and how it can assist with the critical elements of successful statebuilding. For example, a legitimate government might not be necessary for a religion to achieve its spiritual goal. Security and stability may have inherent value for one religious group, whilst for another they are merely temporary means to a spiritual end. Furthermore, in their charitable actions some religions may prioritise the provision of basic needs for the alleviation of poverty whilst others more strongly pursue structural changes to achieve social justice.

For too long academia and policy makers have sidelined engaging with theological questions such as these in a mistaken view that religious actors are motivated by the same drivers as sporting associations, community groups or businesses. This has led to confusion or even despair within the international aid community when religious groups don't fully embrace their peacebuilding or statebuilding efforts. Understanding what influences how religious institutions commit their considerable resources and authority requires engaging with theology.

Appreciating in advance the nuanced schools of theological thought and doctrines embraced by religious leaders in a particular society can help international actors determine whether there are areas of potential mutual benefit in collaboration or even potential roadblocks that may emerge. Only once their priorities are known can the international community begin to develop mechanisms for engaging with religious groups for the mutual benefit of the people.

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