If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the last few weeks trying to grapple with Canada’s newfound role in Afghanistan. As someone whose inclinations rest squarely on the side of peace, this mission somehow seems more complicated — less evil than Bush’s blood for oil approach in Iraq. But why? Did Stephen Harper’s stealth visit to Kandahar turn my critical brain into mush? Am I falling into blind allegiance with the “support our troops” argument, ignoring the fact that the best way to keep people safe is to steer them out of harm’s way?
Still, stories of gender apartheid under the Taliban tug at my heartstrings. And it’s hard to ignore the fact that in a country where religious zealots routinely stone women for showing a flash of ankle, women hold almost 30 percent of the newly elected parliamentary seats (compared to only 21 percent of Canada’s House Of Commons and provincial legislatures). I can’t help but wonder if Canada would be doing more harm than good by walking away. Both of my grandfathers fought the Nazis in the Second World War, and I wonder why their actions seem somehow virtuous, in comparison to the modern-day fight against terror where it’s hard to separate the good guys from the bad ones.
Despite my deep empathy for the Afghan people, significant questions still linger in my mind. I am immediately suspicious when politicians tell us that an open debate would be unpatriotic. This is despite the fact that no politician has given Canadians a clear answer as to why Afghanistan should be the military’s new priority. Are we there to help the country rebuild after Bush’s post-9/11 bombing campaign? To fight terrorism? To mediate conflict?
One thing is clear: this is not a UN peacekeeping mission — it’s an extension of Bush’s War On Terror, and if there’s any irrefutable proof, it’s in the infamous poster that the Canadian embassy has plastered all over the US capital. It shows a Canadian soldier holding a gun, surrounded by Afghans, and reads: “Canadian troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Boots on the ground. US-Canada relations. Security is our business.”
Many Canadians would be shocked to learn that Canada’s international “business” has changed rapidly in recent years. According to Steve Staples of the Polaris Institute, the Liberals’ 2005 budget increased military spending by $12.8 billion over the next five years, pushing Canada’s military spending to nearly $20 billion per year–a level not seen since the Second World War. Stephen Harper has indicated that he plans to continue on this path. And the majority of money being spent on missions abroad is now serving to bolster US-led missions, at the expense of UN peace operations. In 1992-93, participation in UN missions accounted for more than nine of every 10 dollars spent on international operations. By 2004-05, the United Nations had been nearly abandoned, accounting for a mere 30 cents of every $10 of Canada’s spending on military missions abroad.
There’s a difference between solidarity and occupation. And a military solution is not always the best one to resolve political conflicts. Just ask James Loney, who is now savouring the love of his family and his partner Dan Hunt, after being rescued from four months of imprisonment by an Iraqi militant group. Compelled to practice non-violence, in even the most extreme situations, Loney put his body on the line to work with the Christian Peacemaker Teams. He was there to support the Iraqi people who are struggling to recover from Saddam’s Hussein’s past abuses, while also contending with a seemingly permanent hostile US presence in their homes and communities. Loney chose to work for peace in a country that would sentence him to death for being gay. According to Michael Battista, a Toronto immigration lawyer who has worked with Amnesty International, “The level of intolerance is so high, the issue [of gay rights] isn’t even within public discourse.”
For Loney, the practice of peace superseded his own sexual orientation. He demonstrated empathy for people who couldn’t possibly understand his day-to-day life in Canada, choosing instead to understand theirs. His imprisonment forced his partner to return to the closet, attempting to guarantee Loney’s safety by simply disappearing.
Loney represents the intersection of three realities that might (in other contexts) seem mutually exclusive: Christianity, radical social justice and homosexuality. By his very nature, his identity challenges Bush-style evangelism that would blindly follow a country into war, and continues to oppress queer people all over the world.
In the queer activist movement, we ask people to stand with us. We hope that they will ignore the dictates of their religious upbringings and open their minds and hearts to accept gay, lesbian and trans people into their communities. But would we do the same? How many of us would hide our identities in the pursuit of justice?
What can we learn from the experiences of Loney and others in Iraq? Occupation leads to the growth of fundamentalism. Aid can’t be delivered on the barrel of a gun. War doesn’t just make gay people invisible — it makes everyone disappear. As Loney commented, there are “prisoners being held all over the world; people who have disappeared into an abyss of detention without charges, due process, hope for release, some victims of physical and psychological torture, people unknown and forgotten.”
Welcome home Jim. You have a lot to teach us about the true meaning of solidarity.