Portlander James Twyman calls himself the “Peace Troubadour.” On Wednesday, January 20, he'll bring his classical guitar to ISIS-controlled Syria for a peace concert, asking people to join him in prayer at the exact time of his performance. We caught up with Twyman before he set out to ask him the obvious question.
The idea to do this struck me very strongly a few weeks ago, and I just knew that it was something I had to do. I felt very called to do it. I began making inquiries to find the best and safest way to get into Syria, probably through Turkey and the Kurdish area.
I also knew that once I got there I’d be able to test the pulse and see what the temperature is. As it developed, I received word that there was a very large group of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders that wanted to come with me. That was very exciting because it turned it into an important religious gathering. We chose for the safety of the whole group to do this in a spot in the Golan Heights that is still pretty safe, where we would be able to overlook and see many Syrian towns—many of which are held by ISIS and other radical groups.
Are you concerned for your safety?
I have no intention of being a martyr. I just became a grandfather a few months ago. I’m very careful. There is always risk, but I believe this is a time to be courageous. The world needs examples of courage. We also need ways that people feel that their voice is being heard and that they are playing a role in a positive way. People are so frightened by ISIL and other terrorist activity, but the idea of having millions of people coming together in 15 minutes and focusing their energy on this particular place and time makes us feel like we are part of something important, and that we’re playing a role in a positive way.
So that’s the reason I do this. I’m not just doing it to do a concert in some dangerous place—that would be crazy. It means helping people see that we do have a role and we don’t have to be fearful. Compassion and peace really are the path. That's something I am willing to be in danger for.
What's the ideal outcome?
This has been scientifically proven—the Maharishi Effect. When large groups of meditators go into cities and meditate, they found that it brings down the crime rate and rate of violence. This has been shown over and over in different cities.
In Israel, I was part of a non-localized prayer meditation. People weren’t in the same energy physically but we charted the violence, the crime before and after, and it turns out that crime went down 25 percent. So, there is evidence supporting this idea, prayer is a powerful force. I believe it’s the most powerful force in the universe. Miracles happen when we focus our attention and energy.
What exactly will you be singing?
The three songs I’ll be singing are the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish prayers of peace. So much of the violence in the world is based on religion, even though the foundation of religion is peace and compassion. Every religion has a peace prayer, and these are the three great Abrahamic religions. We are all cousins. There is no reason for violence.
You've been to other war zones before, Bosnia and Iraq, right?
Every peace mission I’ve been on has been very different both in how it developed and in all the details of the mission itself. For example, when I went on my first mission in 1995, at that time I wanted to go to the Balkan region because that’s where peace seemed to be in the greatest need.
I had just put the peace prayers from the 12 major religions to music and I was doing a concert to share them. So I sent out a letter to probably 100 or so peace and humanitarian organizations in that region of the world, and I got one request back. That’s how I was able to travel to Croatia and Bosnia.
I wrote a book based on that experience called Emissary of Light. While I was in London on a book tour I was on a radio show that was traditionally very aggressive, and I was asked some tough questions. I remember saying that what I really wanted to do was to go to Iraq and sing the Muslim peace prayer to Saddam Hussein. Later that night I received a phone call from the Iraqi Ambassador to Great Britain and they said they could make that happen. Three days later I was in Baghdad [where I played, but not before Hussein].
What does your family think about this?
My family is not very thrilled about this. I have received lots of urgent requests not to do this, but I’ve assured them all that we are doing this as safely as possible. We have to do what we feel led and guided to do, and this is simply what I do. There have been more dangerous missions in the past, but I think that the danger will be limited because of where we are going to be. The vigil means that millions of people will be focusing their prayers of peace at that same moment which will also minimize the danger.
The State Department has been calling me. They’ve been advising me not to go, but were glad to hear what the actual plan is. We are going to be minimizing the danger.