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.