Denis Dragovic on Religion & State-Building
Date: May 10th, 2015

Do religious organizations play any role in helping to rebuild failed states?  Prof. Denis Dragovic, an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne, joins us from Australia to discuss his new book Religion and Post-Conflict Statebuilding: Roman Catholic and Sunni Islamic Perspectives.  Prof. Dragovic not only is a scholar of this topic, but he is also a practitioner who has had extensive experience in the field working with a variety of faith-based groups in some of the most politically troubled spots in the world.  He begins the interview by telling us how he had to rescue one of his aid workers that had been kidnapped in Iraq, a harrowing tale indeed!

Our discussion on the issue of state-building begins with a little political science discussion, helping to define the terms of “failed state” and “state-building.”  Denis notes that there are three critical areas that must be tended to when creating a functioning state that can help coordinate a society: 1) legitimacy; 2) security; and 3) basic needs (e.g., food, shelter).  Without any of these three elements, individuals in a society live in a rather precarious situation.  Denis peppers his discussion with some examples from the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans.  We then discuss what role religious organizations can play and why so many policymakers have overlooked the important organizational role faith groups play in society.  Religious groups are essential components of civil society that usually remain well-organized even when a secular governing system is collapsing, plus they provide a great deal of knowledge about local conditions and network well with residents in villages and towns.

We then move on to how religious groups assist in building (or rebuilding) the three elements of a functioning state.  We start with legitimacy and Denis dissects this concept further by noting that there are three components to legitimacy: 1) legal validity of the state; 2) justification of power that transcends generations; and 3) the expression of citizen consent.  He explains how religious groups can lend support to political leaders linking their legitimacy to the citizenry, and how rulers also use religious symbolism to connect with their population.  He illustrates this with an interesting tale from Croatia following the civil war it experienced following the collapse of Yugoslavia.   Security is the next issue we take up, and this is a surprising one given that religious groups generally do not control police or military force.  Nonetheless, faith-based entities provide the ability to adjudicate disputes, enhance social capital (such as trust within society), and promote civic norms and values that help bring peace to a society.  The role of sermons by religious leaders plays a large role here.  Finally, we discuss the area of basic needs, which is what most people think about when talking about the role of religious groups in troubled areas.  Here we cover the dimensions of international aid and domestic assistance, noting how religious organizations know a great deal about the local needs of different communities and are great conduits for solving problems.

We then discuss the role that different faith traditions play in state-building, including what it is like to work ecumenically across theologies.  This takes us into a brief discussion of the different conceptualizations that Catholics and Sunni Muslims have with respect to the role of the state and governance.  Our attention then turns to an interesting situation in the Middle East, which is the rise of the Islamic State and where this emerging group fits into the topic of state-building.  We finish with some of Prof. Dragovic’s thoughts about what he has learned over the course of his scholarship and many years working in the field.  Recorded: April 22, 2015.


Prof. Denis Dragovic’s personal website.

Prof. Denis Dragovic’s bio at the Conversation.

Religion and Post-Conflict Statebuilding: Roman Catholic and Sunni Islamic Perspectives, by Denis Dragovic.


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