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{Facebook post by Ryan S Bonnett, published here with permission}

I get asked every once in a while why I decided to get a history degree. After all, I never technically did anything with it. At the time, I took the classes because I enjoyed them. The longer I live, though, the more I’ve realized that history is a tool, a lens to see current events though. The tragedy in Syria has certainly driven this home.

I’m not here to recap the entirety of the Syrian Civil War. There’s been enough written on that recently. But for the sake of this post, it must be understood that the violence stemmed from the Arab Spring of 2011. All across the Arab world, dictators were opposed, through violent and non-violent means depending on locale. But when you look at the reasons for the revolts, you don’t really see religion at the top of the list. Dissatisfaction with dictators. Unemployment. Highly educated people with no opportunity.

Corruption. And a general sense that the younger demographics were not willing to sit back and accept their lot in life. In Syria, at least, this was met with a disproportionate and violent response from the ruling regime. Years of civil war later, you end up with the tragic final days in Aleppo.

But I want to take you back even further. To a different time and a different place. Specifically, Europe, starting in 1517, the year that Martin Luther published his Ninety-five Theses. This religious revolt against the Roman Catholic Church was the catalyst for more than a century of warfare, massacres, persecution, and general bloodshed. It’s so easy for us to look back on it as a war between Protestants and Catholics, but the reality, as is so often the case, was infinitely more complicated. Yet, at the end of the day, the sides generally fell along religious lines, so we remember the conflicts as such.

I won’t belabor this, but in a little over a century, low end estimates have nearly six million people dying. They died in battle, in massacres, through famine and through disease. They died, depending on time and place, fighting between religious sects, but also fighting simply for religious freedoms. Or because it turned into typical political clashes. And in some cases between peasants and their landlords.

In the centuries since those conflicts, the various Christian sects have by and large learned to live with each other. It took the Age of Enlightenment to get us there, but we (as in cultures descended from mostly European influence) eventually made it. The idea of the Pope calling on Catholics to go to war with Orthodox Christians or Protestants is met by us as laughable and archaic.

But when we look at parts of the Middle East, Africa, and beyond, it is dangerously easy to see the conflicts there as a fight between religious sects. But that is exactly why I’m bringing up what to us is ancient history. Our European ancestors fought over the things people have fought over since time immemorial. They just happened to share a more nuanced religious belief with those they fought alongside.
Which brings us back to present day. People were fighting in the Middle East for the exact same things that many of you went to the polls over. Corruption. Human rights. The economy. We had an election. They had revolutions.

Yes, there are movements in that part of the world hoping to establish an extremist Islamic caliphate. Yes, those movements became involved in the fighting. And yes, those people are not friendly to what we would consider a western way of life. But it is also important to understand that any time you have an economic crisis and no sense of identity, people will flock to a movement that promises to give them power back. This should immediately call to mind Germany in the nineteen thirties, and that’s a comparison you’re all familiar with.

The point to all of what I’ve said is this: We live in largely the same world that our ancestors did. People, by and large, have the same hopes, dreams, and aspirations that they always have. And there are those same, dispossessed, damned men and women who have who have fallen into extremism for one reason or another. There is the same corruption, and the same people fighting against it. There is the same iniquity, and the same refusal to accept the status quo. The differences are time. And place. And that some men are named after Apostles, while others are named after Prophets.

History is cyclical. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone who disagreed with that statement. So we here in the west look to the east, and see what is going on in those foreign lands with the same flawed generalizations that we apply to our own history. With the same convenience of labels and the inability to grasp all of the nuances. In this case, they’re drowned in the tide of the information age, not under the weight of ages.

This all hits home especially hard for me. My family fled the violence in Europe, where they were persecuted for being French Calvinists, more commonly known as Huguenots. After years of running from one country to another, they set sail for colonies at the edge of the world, landing in Philadelphia in 1733, and moving on from there. These weren’t combatants. These were people people who inherited the religion of their fathers and were trying to make their way in life despite the chaos around them.

And that’s the answer to all of this. We don’t need registries of professed faiths. We don’t need to create bogeymen out of a billion and a half people. We need to fight against our instincts to create a cultural Other. We need to learn to judge people as individuals, on their own merits. We talk about meritocracy in our own bubbles, but have such a hard time extending that to all that we may meet.

And we need to understand that we’re looking at the cycle of history all wrong. When people claim that Muslims are stuck in the dark ages, they’re failing to understand that the same factors that motivate them are the same that motivate us. And our ancestors. And the Romans. And the Parthians. And the Babylonians. And every human who has ever lived. What we need to take from history is that when everyone is given a square deal, there is prosperity. And when they aren’t, they fight for it.

So what I ask of everyone, myself included, is this: Look for the subtleties in the complex world around you. Resist the urge to lump everything into labels, whether it be Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shia, Democrat and Republican. Mourn those who are lost in these conflicts, but more importantly, spread the understanding we need to see everyone as a human, not a label, nor someone who needs to be registered. Those lost in Syria may not be the handful of people reading this. But they certainly have a lot in common with our ancestors. Because if we don’t work for a better world, every tiny chance we get, history will certainly cycle back again.

And as always, be good to one another.