Terry Waite, who is best known for being held hostage for five years by the Islamic Jihad Organisation (between 1987-1991), was a keynote speaker at Friday’s Irish Churches Peace Project (ICPP) conference on ‘Faithful Peacebuilding’ at the Hilton in Templepatrick.
Waite served as a special envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury and negotiated the release of a number of hostages in the Middle East during the 1980s. He was himself taken hostage when attempting to negotiate the release of four more hostages. His time in captivity was spent in solitary confinement, where he was at times beaten.
Waite shared some general thoughts on the importance of talking with and eventually negotiating with ‘terrorists,’ before sharing about his experiences as a hostage. He said:
‘What we have learned is that with every terrorist group throughout history, eventually you have to talk with them and you can talk with them. There is a difference between talking and negotiating, and first you have to talk, to begin to understand them and form a relationship of trust.’
He said that when he was first taken hostage, he held himself to three principles:
- No regrets: Don’t regret, because you have tried. If you begin to regret, you will become demoralised.
- No self-pity: There are many people who are worse off than you. If you indulge in self-pity, you will become demoralised.
- No over-sentimentality. Don’t say, ‘if only I had been a better husband or a father.’ You can’t live your life again, so don’t let the past dominate your life now.
Although Waite did not keep absolutely to those three principles all the time, he said that striving to meet them was important for sustaining him.
Waite added that he certainly had plenty of time to reflect during his captivity, so he tried to think of this time as an opportunity, not a punishment or a misfortune.
‘I said to myself, you have travelled a lot in your life. Now you have an opportunity to take a different form of journey – into yourself. I discovered aspects of myself of which I was not proud. I learned to be aware of the dark side, not overwhelmed by it. The key is not to suppress it, but to find balance within.’
Waite added that it was a blessing to him that he had been brought up with the Church of England’s prayer book, and as a chorister he had memorised many of the prayers. He said he did not himself use extemporary prayer, as this could too easily slide into pleading with God. So he relied on the prayers of this institutional church to comfort and sustain him.
After his release, Waite said he realised that he must eventually return to the place of his captivity. He went to the Syrian border and saw the plight of the refugees. He then went to meet one of the men responsible for his captivity.
‘I said, “let’s put the past in the past and build a new future together.” He said, “you’re a great man for staying that.” And that’s the first time we spoke together as human beings, that we met on a human level. I said, “I’d like you to get heating oil for those on the border.” And he did it.’
Reflecting on the role of religious institutions, Waite concluded that ‘established religion is not enough.’ He said:
‘What’s required is a real church, people who have taken a different road themselves and can therefore have compassion and understanding for their opponents. That is partly the way to peace.
… Here, in Northern Ireland, if individuals in church begin an inner investigation, that will communicate itself to the wider community and eventually have an impact.’
Waite’s talk picked up on themes raised earlier in the conference by the other keynote speakers, Rev Dr Johnston McMaster and Rev Emmanuel Murangira. These included the importance of the inner transformation required for individuals seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as the need to change the social, economic and political structures that create injustice.
Although Waite spoke less about the structural aspects of injustice than McMaster, he cautioned that political and social structures are ‘complicated, and take time to change. You must be patient and understand those structures’ if they are ever to be changed. Crucially, those working for change will need a strong inner life to keep going in their work.
More from the ICPP Conference:
Photo by Brian O’Neill