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…true religion promotes the civilization and honor, the prosperity and prestige, the learning and advancement of a people once abject, enslaved and ignorant, and how, when it falls into the hands of religious leaders who are foolish and fanatical, it is diverted to the wrong ends, until this greatest of splendors turns into blackest night. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 80.
The Baha’i teachings say that the main cause for unrest among nations comes from the misrepresentation of religion—by religious leaders themselves:
The basis of the teaching of Baha’u’llah is the Unity of Mankind, and his greatest desire was that love and goodwill should live in the heart of men.
As He exhorted the people to do away with strife and discord, so I wish to explain to you the principal reason of the unrest among nations. The chief cause is the misrepresentation of religion by the religious leaders and teachers. They teach their followers to believe that their own form of religion is the only one pleasing to God, and that followers of any other persuasion are condemned by the All-Loving Father and deprived of His Mercy and Grace. Hence arise among the peoples, disapproval, contempt, disputes and hatred. If these religious prejudices could be swept away, the nations would soon enjoy peace and concord…. Alas! It is misguided ones like these who are the cause of division and hatred upon earth. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 45-46.
The leaders of humanity’s ancient religions have all waged war on one another. From the Crusades to the latest ISIS attacks in Syria and Iraq, the history of violence directed and engendered by religious leadership can fill entire volumes. According to Professor Ian Robertson’s research, religious and political leaders must take responsibility for the savagery they advocate and unleash:
Finally, people will do savage things if their leaders tell them it is acceptable to do so, particularly if they have given their selves to the group self. The Rwandan genocide was switched on by a series of radio broadcasts by a small group of leaders to a population who, by that instruction, were turned into savage murderers of former friends and neighbours who were in the out-group. The soldiers of the Soviet army committed mass rape as they invaded Germany in 1945 because senior commanders had advocated it. Islamic State fighters are slaughtering unarmed Christians and Yazidis because their leaders have told them that this is the right thing to do.
Leaders at many levels from the tribe to the country, are responsible for this savagery, and so leaders can eventually stop it – just as they chose to do in Rwanda, after international pressure. But the trouble is, as we have seen, when leaders choose to encourage savagery, not quell it, there is nothing hard-wired into human beings to stand up against it.
The only force strong enough to stand up against savagery, the Baha’i teachings say, is true human unity—which comes from the renewal of the original religious teachings of the great prophets and founders of religion:
In short, by religion we mean those necessary bonds which have power to unify. This has ever been the essence of the religion of God. This is the eternal bestowal of God! This is the object of divine teachings and laws! This is the light of the everlasting life! Alas! A thousand times alas! that this solid foundation is abandoned and forgotten and the leaders of religions have fabricated a set of superstitions and rituals which are at complete variance with the underlying thought. As these man-made ideas differ from each other they cause dissension which breeds strife and ends in war and bloodshed; the blood of innocent people is spilled, their possessions are pillaged and their children become captives and orphans.
Thus religion which was destined to become the cause of friendship has become the cause of enmity. Religion, which was meant to be sweet honey, is changed into bitter poison. Religion, the function of which was to illumine humanity, has become the factor of obscuration and gloom. Religion, which was to confer the consciousness of everlasting life, has become the fiendish instrument of death. As long as these superstitions are in the hands and these nets of dissimulation and hypocrisy in the fingers, religion will be the most harmful agency on this planet. These superannuated traditions, which are inherited unto the present day, must be abandoned, and thus free from past superstitions we must investigate the original intention. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 161-162.