Small Wars Journal

Aligned Interests or Conflicting Agendas: Stabilization, Reconstruction and Religion

Fri, 08/07/2015 - 4:53pm

Aligned Interests or Conflicting Agendas: Stabilization, Reconstruction and Religion

Denis Dragovic

It was Stalin who quipped, ‘How many divisions has the Pope?’ when suggesting that military might dictates power, yet in a twist of fate history tells us that Stalin underestimated religion with Pope John Paul II being credited for contributing to the collapse of Communism (Kraszewski, 2012).

Today the international aid community continues to underestimate the power of religion as a potential partner, in particular for the purpose of this article, in the context of post-conflict statebuilding. This is despite the high levels of trust, legitimacy and material resources that religious institutions command. Yet in the rare instances when religion is included, it is instrumentalised, built upon a presumption that a religion’s interests align with every Western foreign foray.

It seems presumptuous to take the view that the largely Western devised, led and funded international aid system should have goals that align with all of the religions of the world. So where do we begin to try to understand if international statebuilding endeavours align or collide with the goals of different religions?

For this we need to consider what motivates religious institutions and leaders to allocate their resources. In academia some scholars model the actions of religious groups by drawing upon a secular framing of rational choice theory (Gill & Keshavarzian, 1999) or resource dependency theory, suggesting that they act to maximise membership, attain tax concessions or increase assets, much like a corporation or a secular membership institution. Alternatively we could make the presumption that they act no differently to individuals working for NGOs, UN agencies or private military contractors, namely influenced in part by personal interests, career goals and financial gain. Whichever of these we take, the result is to de-spiritualise religion.

In challenging such an approach Neo-Institutionalism theory argues that ‘institutional settings shape actors’ preferences and actions’ (Wilde, Geraty, Nelson, & Bowman, 2010, p. 590). In this sense then, for religious institutions, the ‘settings’ including doctrines, beliefs and liturgies, would shape decisions (not wholly as particular circumstances differ from institution to institution and from cleric to cleric, but rather as a common basis from which to begin any study).

For scholars who embrace Neo-Institutionalism religious institutions must be considered differently than corporations or membership organisations because the decision makers operate within a context that includes the spiritual as well as the temporal world. Any modelling of decision making processes must be shaped by the local culture and extended into the spiritual realm, which requires that we understand what the cosmology of a religion is. This brings us to theology and away from the social sciences when considering the motivations of religious institutions as a religion’s theology explains the priorities, hopes and ambitions towards which its resources should be aligned.

In Christianity, what differentiates Christian political theology from secular politics is that to be a Christian is to acknowledge an alternative authority, namely Christ’s sovereignty and the possibility of eternal life. Christ’s atoning for man’s sins through His sacrifice re-established the covenant with God and opened the way to salvation and eternal life.

This desire for eternal life according to the Church’s doctrine is not only innate to our being,  but according to the Bible God desires ‘all people to be saved’ (1 Tim 2:4) and ‘not wishing that any should perish’ (2 Peter 3:9). Such a conceptualization places the end goal outside of the framework of traditional political and social science models making them inadequate to fully integrate the impetus for religious institutions.

As it is only in Christ that man can attain salvation, then the Church must be considered differently than other civil society actors as it offers tangible outcomes that no other secular institution can.

Acknowledging this view, one where salvation is real establishes a theoretical basis from which we can begin to reflect upon the Catholic Church’s theological interest in statebuilding. This can be done by comparing the theological goals with the imperatives of successful statebuilding as I have done earlier (Dragovic, 2015).

For example, recalling the Balkans wars of the 1990s there was criticism of the Catholic Church for spending limited resources on rebuilding Churches rather than distributing humanitarian supplies (Narayan-Parker, 2000, p. 229). There were some who even accused the Church of rebuilding churches for the purpose of furthering ethnic territorial claims.

But for Church officials who must align their actions with a belief in salvation and the power of grace, then for the Church to offer the sacrament of holy community, which is the sacrament of sacraments (Catholic Church, 1994, p. 1211), a consecrated place is required and according to Canon Law only under exceptional circumstances can such a place not be a consecrated church (Sec 932 §1).

Within this world view the Church’s allocation of resources to the rebuilding of bricks and mortar churches is rational. While the rebuilding of physical churches does not necessarily contribute to successful statebuilding other theologically motivated actions influenced by salvation could. One such example would be the relative emphasis of the Catholic Church on the provision of humanitarian assistance over longer term developmental aid. The former, being a critical requirement for successful statebuilding, also allows for the fullest number of people to participate in the economy of salvation by raising them out of the prohibitive constraints of absolute poverty.

For international actors it is critical to understand where the theological emphasis of local Roman Catholic leaders' lies and how these beliefs could influence their motivation to align resources to work in favour of, or against, statebuilding interests.

As for Islam we can’t borrow the same telos or goal as there is no suggestion in Islamic scriptures, the Qu’ran or hadith, that Allah wants all, or even most, people to enter Paradise (Dragovic, 2015, p. 84).

Quite on the contrary in some passages it becomes evident that Allah foresees a majority not entering Paradise. Other than the ten Companions, prophets and possibly martyrs and children there is no expressed view on who or how many Allah wants saved.

There was even a sect who believed that after all of mankind had passed into Hell or Paradise that Allah would destroy both places and all their inhabitants and remain alone as He had been before He had created the universe (Macdonald, 1895, p. fn 21).

As such we are left with knowing that there is a purpose: “Not for (idle) sport did We create the heavens and the earth and all that is between!” (21:16) but not knowing whether the purpose of the heavens and the earth is nothing more than “idle sport” for some humans or full of purpose for all.

So if not individual salvation then what could be the overarching telos of Islam?

Belief in one God and justice are two of the predominant recurring themes within Islam. Because of the secular nature of state building belief is unlikely to yield many mutual interests and so I embrace justice.

Islam, unlike Christianity, has far more to say about how society should be structured. For example, the dominant theme in Christianity on this matter is, "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's." (Romans 22:21) or “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1).

In Islam, conversely, there is considerable guidance on marriage, criminal law, inheritance, rules of war, taxation and so forth. Abiding by this divine gift of knowledge of how to shape society is how some Muslim communities define justice.

This connection between religion, society and politics is reflected in many political parties in Muslim countries having Justice in their name:

Freedom and Justice Party, Egypt; Justice and Development Party, Turkey; Prosperous Justice Party, Indonesia; Pakistan Movement for Justice, Pakistan, etc.

For some political parties and religious groups when the state is guided by Islam it can be a powerful tool as it controls significant levers of authority through which it can contribute to transformative justice. For Islamic institutions there are tangible theological benefits for supporting statebuilding if the state authority and structure can be seen as favourable to the ambitions of Islam. This is why there has been much debate in Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan over their new constitutions and in particular whether Islam will be a sole source of legislation or one of the sources alongside a repugnancy clause that ensures all laws must abide by the principles of Islam.

It would be presumptuous to assume the Western inspired and shaped international system will align with every religion’s telos. As such it’s important that the international community avoid attempting to instrumentalise religion and instead be cognisant of local religious leaders’ goals and are able to identify which of these align with the needs of the statebuilding endeavour and which are working against them.


Catholic Church. (1994). Catechism of the Catholic Church. London: Geoffrey Chapman.

Dragovic, D. (2015). Religion and Post-Conflict Statebuilding: Roman Catholic and Sunni Islamic Perspectives. Basingstoke: Palgrage Macmillan.

Gill, A., & Keshavarzian, A. (1999). State building and religious resources: An institutional theory of church-state relations in Iran and Mexico. Politics and Society, 27(3), 34.

Kraszewski, G. (2012). Catalyst for Revolution Pope John Paul II's 1979 Pilgrimage to Poland and Its Effects on Solidarity and the Fall of Communism, 27.

Macdonald, D. B. (1895). The Faith of al-Islam. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 12(1/2), 93-117.

Narayan-Parker, D. (2000). Crying out for change : voices of the poor. Oxford ; New York: Published by Oxford University Press for the World Bank.

Wilde, M. J., Geraty, K., Nelson, S. L., & Bowman, E. A. (2010). Religious Economy or Organizational Field? Predicting Bishops’ Votes at the Second Vatican Council. American Sociological Review, 75(4), 586-606. doi: 10.1177/0003122410368927

About the Author(s)

Denis Dragovic is an expert on religion and international affairs. He has worked for over a decade with various UN agencies and NGOs in conflict and post-conflict environments in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He holds a PhD in political theology from the University of St Andrews, UK, and is the author of 'Religion and Post-Conflict Statebuilding: Roman Catholic and Sunni Islamic Perspectives' (Palgrave, 2015) as well as numerous literary and policy articles. He is a regular contributor in the media on Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).



Sun, 08/09/2015 - 4:51am

In reply to by joerichard

Joe, I agree with you. But remember, USAID has fewer staff then there are band members in the US military. As long as that misalignment continues we can't hope for much better. To overcome this deficiency this sort of interaction needs to occur more often, the type where academics, aid practitioners, military personnel all blog on issues at the same place.


Sat, 08/08/2015 - 4:32pm

Your first line and overall thesis are correct. But the first line or paragraph could have been more accurate if written as follows:

Today both the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) continue to rely on unprofessional guess-work instead of well developed assessment tools and mechanisms. As such, underestimates, overestimates, and total inaccuracies about root causes, causes of instability, and drivers of conflicts are used in underdeveloped areas to produce extremely expensive and wasteful development plans. Money is thrown at problems with blatant disregard to accountability and responsibility. A primary example of one the foundations of society that is continually overlooked by State and USAID is religion. This policy of waste and mismanagement alienate potential partners and shutout partners that volunteer to assist with development.

At this point some may ask for proof. Below is a link to a paper that examined Department of State and USAID documents. The paper was originally published on the Joint Center for International Security Force Assistance web site. To support the statements above also review the Special Investigator General for Reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Take care.

Joe C.