Peace worker James Loney was held hostage in Iraq for 181 days back in the winter of 2005-06.
Last week at the Beringia Centre, Loney shared his thoughts on freedom and non-violence with a full house of Yukoners.
Loney had been serving in Iraq along with three others as part of Christian Peacemaker Teams, an organization devoted to nonviolent intervention in worldwide conflict zones, when he was kidnapped by the Iraqi insurgent group Swords of Righteousness.
Freed on March 23, 2006 by a multinational military force, Loney returned to Canada just as news hit the airwaves that he was gay, a fact that had been under strict media blackout to protect him from Islamic fundamentalists while in captivity.
He is still an active member of Christian Peacemaker Teams, and lives in Toronto with partner Dan Hunt.
After Thursday’s talk, he sat down with a Yukon News reporter to share thoughts on captivity, nonviolence and gay rights.
While you oppose the idea of war, you have expressed respect for the sense of duty that often compels young people to join the military. Was it similar feelings that compelled you to join Christian Peacemaker Teams?
I had come to the conclusion by the time that I was 25 or 26 that Jesus taught nonviolence, and that nonviolence was intrinsic to the gospel.
I had heard about Christian Peacemaker Teams, where people take the same risks that soldiers take in war, except using peaceful means. And so I thought that if I believed in nonviolence and if I disagreed with the institution of war that I should put my money where my mouth is.
If some Christians should be prepared to take the risks that soldiers take, then why not me? Why am I exempt from that?
Your first overseas assignment with CPT was to the Israeli occupied territories. Was there ever a time that you felt in danger?
There was one night that soldiers had stormed into a Palestinian’s house, so we followed them. They went up three flights of stairs, it was dark … we didn’t know where we were going but they were going into a civilian’s house and we wanted them to know that they couldn’t just do whatever they wanted; there would be somebody watching to hold them accountable. That was pretty scary.
In many past conflicts, parallels have often been drawn between the similarities of soldiers on opposing sides. For instance, British soldiers in the First World War finding a lot in common with their German “enemies” situated less than 100 metres away. Having been in close contact with the opposing side of the current war in Iraq, do you think the same holds true?
Yes. I think that our captors saw themselves as the good guys; the mujahedeen, holy warriors of God. They (saw themselves as) the good guys fighting against the bad guys who had come into their country and were killing their family members and dropping bombs.
The (coalition) soldiers saw themselves as the good guys, and they would often use the term ‘bad guy,’ in referring to the Iraqi insurgents. They had been sent by their governments to bring freedom and democracy and to save the world from weapons of mass destruction.
So, in a sense, both groups are working from the same narrative; they see themselves as the ‘good guy’ battling the ‘bad guy’ using every means at their disposal.
What would your captors have done if they had ever found out that you were gay?
I don’t know what they would have done, but it was not going to help if the captors found out about my sexuality. They would ask, “How can you not be married when you’re 41? You must get married.”
I would just say, “It’s a very sad story.”
With the fall of the Saddam regime, there was a turn towards more rigid, more closed, more conservative kinds of social norms. Gay Iraqi men were targeted in particular … a religious edict was issued saying that gay men should be killed in the worst possible way.
Being part of an organization devoted to human rights, and having been within a country with extremely oppressive laws against homosexuality, what future do you see for gay rights in countries such as Iraq and Iran?
It’s a long fight. There are Iraqi and Iranian gay men who are organizing to change their society and they’re very brave. There were people who had to take that same pioneering path in our own society many years ago.
It’s going to be a long road, but if it has changed here, it can change there. It may take longer, but I think it can.
How do you define nonviolence?
It’s a dramatic exercise of power that doesn’t result in bodies and mass carnage. There is risk: some people will be hurt and some will be killed, but on the whole the effect is much greater.
It is often argued that non-violence can only work when it is offered as an alternative to actual violence, that Martin Luther King was only effective because he was an alternative to Malcolm X, or that a peaceful dismantling of South African apartheid was only possible because of the threat of an impending revolution. Would you agree?
I think that sometimes the state looks to provoke violence, which justifies a massive use of violence in return.
The threat of violence can be a real fear and it can motivate change — and maybe you can’t have a pure nonviolent movement. There’s always going to be people who have “had enough” and will think that they have to use violence. But on the whole, there is a power and force in nonviolence that can be very successful.
When a section of the population is brutally kept down, such as homosexual populations in the Middle East, is there ever a way that they can use pure nonviolence to achieve their rights?
Of course. Education, international solidarity: these are all different tactics in nonviolence. I can’t really imagine any other way. Are the queers of Iran going to rise up with guns? Are they going to use violence to change people’s minds about same-sex love? What they have to do is change people’s way of seeing the paradigm.
Votes for women, slavery, these have all been mental constructions that we’ve had to change.
In captivity, you have talked about one of the captors confiding in you his wish to become a suicide bomber, a plan he eventually dropped due to your advice. Why do you think he had initially decided to confide in you, his hostage?
I don’t know. I think we all tried to show them respect. Not as captors but as human beings. We showed them that we believed in peace, that we weren’t going to harm them, or anyone.
You have often brought up the paradox that your freedom was assured as a result of military action, which you had been in Iraq to oppose. In your opinion, what would have been the ideal resolution to your captivity?
The ideal solution would have been for them to just let us go … maybe using it as a public relations coup. If they had let us go, they would have been free. They could have walked away and it could have been over … let us go and they can go back to their lives as taxi drivers and farmers, give away their guns, and live peaceful, good lives.
That’s still what I wish for them — that they would turn away from the gun, renounce violence, and live according to how they were created to live, which is to love, to heal and to care for others.
If you could ever meet your captors again, what would be the first thing you would say?
“How are you doing?” “Long time no see?” — I guess I have some questions about why they did it. What happened to Tom? Why did they kill Tom? I would also be very curious to know what their lives are like outside of being a mujahedeen.