James Twyman wants you to know that he's not going to just wander into ISIS-controlled territory with a guitar slung on his back for his upcoming "peace prayer concert" inside Syria. He isn't crazy, he tells me over the phone from his houseboat in Oregon. "I have no intention of being a martyr."
The 53-year-old "Peace Troubadour" first announced his plan to venture into Syria in a blog post last month:
Performing the peace prayers in ISIS Controlled Syria will be the most important and dangerous peace mission of my life…Every peace mission I've been on has been dangerous, but this journey is without question the most perilous, and in my opinion—the most important. People everywhere are concerned about the escalating violence in the Middle East, especially with the rise of ISIS, but they don't feel empowered to be part of the solution. That is what we are about to change.
Twyman's original idea was to enter Syria through Turkey, travel through Kurdish-controlled areas, and then into ISIS territory, where he would perform wherever he could get to. "But now things have really escalated," he says. The State Department made it clear that it would have little ability to help him should anything go awry. "People have been writing me, begging me not to go. You know, just the most fearful things you could imagine." Things like the kidnappings, beheadings, and the chaos that have become ISIS' trademark. Twyman's well aware of it all, but says, "I try not to put too much energy in it, but I do need to be responsible about it. I think the most important thing we all need today is courage."
Now, his plan has changed—phew!—from a really horrible one to a less horrible one. Twyman leaves on the 20th for Italy, where he'll spend a week preparing for the performance. Then he flies to Tel Aviv to meet with a collection of supporters and a group of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish leaders who will join him as he crosses the Israel-Syria border to Majdal Shams, an Israeli-occupied town in the Golan Heights that overlooks ISIS-held territory several miles away.
This isn't Twyman's first musical peace mission. He performed in the Balkans during the region's wars in the '90s and sang in Baghdad in 1998—at the behest of Saddam Hussein, he claims.
Twyman hopes that millions of people from around the world will join him in focused prayer as he leads a peace vigil near Majdal Shams and sings an Islamic prayer for peace on February 1. (Watch his rendition in English below.) "There is definitely a correlation between massive numbers of people focusing their energy on a situation, and then a shift in the energy—or a crisis being averted—because of it." Each of the religious leaders will offer prayers of peace from their own tradition, what Twyman calls "The Great Abrahamic Pulse."
Twyman says the decision to scale back his Syrian trip is due to the spiritual leaders who are now involved. "I feel that it's more important that they be there" than to go closer to ISIS territory, he says. "So we're going to be as close as possible while remaining as safe as possible." Will he have a security detail? "No," he tells me. "I'm someone who believes on the power of prayer and positive energy."