What So-Called Religious Wars Are Really About

In the end, it has nothing to do with God. From biblical times to crusades and jihad, self-proclaimed "holy wars" are actually driven by power, territory and economic interests.

Afghan Mujahideen near the Pakistan border, 1985
Afghan Mujahideen near the Pakistan border, 1985
Edgar S. Hasse*


HAMBURG — When Christians, Yazidi and Shiites had to flee for their lives from Iraq's latest "holy warriors," they lost everything along the way. Without hesitation, ISIS militias took their money and jewelry. Even tiny earrings weighing half a gram were taken from 6-month-old babies, along with their Pampers.

This takes place in the name of Allah, the Prophet and Sharia. The mercenaries invoke the Koran and pursue people with different beliefs with swords and Kalashnikovs. Those who don't flee have three options: convert to Sunniism, pay a lot of money — or die.

Religious wars claim victims in other parts of the world as well. In the Central African Republic, Christians and Muslims are fighting to the death. In Asian Myanmar, Buddhist monks bash in the skulls of Muslims because otherwise "they'll cut our heads off," says monk Wira Thu from a Mandalay monastery. Meanwhile, in Nigeria the Islamic group Boko Haram is terrorizing non-Muslims and abducting schoolgirls in the name of Allah.

But is it really religion that is bringing this terror? Is religion really the "poison in the blood," as writer Salman Rushdie once said? Religious scholars, ethnologists and theologians have long debated whether religion causes violence or if faith fosters peace.

Here's one thesis: It is not the belief in Allah, Yahweh or God that unleashes religiously motivated violence. More is needed for that, like excessive striving for power, riches, influence, sexual fulfillment and bloodlust. The religious systems merely provide the mask under which the banality of evil can hide. Killing and robbing are sanctioned by invoking God or Allah.

A Muslim man worked for over 30 years at a Christian convent in Mosul. He could be relied on to help the nuns with odd jobs around the place. Then the terror militias moved in. No sooner had the nuns started to try and rescue a few of their possessions before fleeing the bloodthirsty hordes than the Muslim drove up with a tractor and began, in front of the nuns, to plunder the convent, taking with him anything that wasn't nailed down.

Depiction of 12th Century Crusades Battle of Ager Sanguinis near Aleppo. Wikipedia

Chaldean Catholic Bishop Emil Shimoun Nona told this story on a recent visit to Germany. And it's not unique. Everywhere that the Islamic jihad mercenaries capture land for their caliphate, there is murder, plunder and robbery. And it's not just the ISIS militias that act without scruple. Former neighbors of Christians and Yazidi avail themselves of the opportunity for self-enrichment. Just like the Muslim man at the convent.

Professor Günther Schlee, director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Saale, Germany, demonstrated in his English-language book How Enemies are Made that so-called wars of religion have very little to do with theology and religious belief. Rather, the causes of such conflicts are social and economic. Schlee identifies a kind of holy warrior "who doesn't have a clue about his religion."

In reality

The real source of the violence is the fight for material and political resources. "In the case of the Syria and Iraq conflicts, the resource being fought over is the state," Schlee says. "Acquiring the power of the state can be its own goal or a means towards other resources and areas of action." Such as water or oil, for example. So far, ISIS has occupied 17 oil fields in Syria and Iraq. The Carnegie Foundation estimates that oil sales on the black market would generate a billion dollars a year.

In the Central African Republic, it's also about resources. With periodic ceasefires, the Muslim minority is fighting the Christian majority. For decades, the Christians and Christian-oriented government have discriminated against the Muslims, which account for about 15% of the population. That resulted in violence, with the Christian Anti-balaka militias and the Muslim Seleka alliance fighting each other.

Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Catholic Archbishop of Bangui, says that not a single priest, imam or minister gave the order to kill. It was always politicians who belonged to one or the other group. "This," he says, "is not a religious conflict. It's a military-political one."

History also shows that the real reason for religious conflicts is economic interest — the religion just provides a sanctioning framework. When the Arabs expanded in the 7th and 8th centuries it was all about money. "It wasn't about converting Christians and Jews, but getting them to finance the Islamic state by paying taxes," says Stephan Schlensog, general manager of the Global Ethic Foundation in Tübingen. At the end, the Arabic empire stretched from northern Spain to the Himalayas.

The Christianization of Latin America in the 15th and 16th centuries was based on European greed for gold. God's name was misused in the mass murder of native Latin Americans. The Roman Catholic Church benefited considerably from the genocide in terms of property ownership. The Christian religion mainly served to legitimize the exploitation of the Indios. "Saving souls" took a back seat.

As for religiously motivated violence, Heidelberg Egyptologist Jan Assmann is of the opinion that it can be blamed on the monotheism of Moses in the Old Testament. Assmann says that it precluded peaceful coexistence among gods.

Schlee agrees. "There have always been violence and massacres," he says. "Even in the Stone Age. But violence in the name of God has only existed since Moses."

* Edgar S. Hasse is a Protestant theologian and editor of Hamburger Evening Journal.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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