‘A most sly and devious Cat’

AUTHOR SALMAN RUSHDIE speaks at an event in 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AUTHOR SALMAN RUSHDIE speaks at an event in 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Yusuf Islam (the artist formally known as Cat Stevens) stated that worst job he had ever done was “explaining my position on the Satanic Verses issue.”
Cat Stevens achieved global fame as a pop star in the Sixties and Seventies. He wrote songs that helped to define his times and still sound great today.
Like many of his peers in the music business, he was always rather spiritual. But unlike the shallow, exhibitionist spiritualism of some, Stevens was searching for something deeper. After exploring various holy texts – to no particular avail – his brother handed him a copy of the Koran, and Stevens’ prayers were answered. He became Yusuf Islam, and turned his back on a glittering pop career to dedicate his life to Allah.
No one could doubt his sincerity. As other celebrities flitted from one esoteric fad to the next, Yusuf immersed himself in Islam. He became a philanthropist, religious apologist, student, teacher and communicator. He said that he was dedicated to peace.
In 1989 Iranian theocrat Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie. His crime: writing a novel called The Satanic Verses.
Yusuf Islam attended a debate on the BBC about the Satanic Verses affair that same year. Geoffrey Robertson conducted the interview:
Robertson: You don’t think that this man deserves to die?
Y. Islam: Who, Salman Rushdie?
Robertson: Yes.
Y. Islam: Yes, yes.
Robertson: And do you have a duty to be his executioner?
Y. Islam: Uh, no, not necessarily, unless we were in an Islamic state and I was ordered by a judge or by the authority to carry out such an act – perhaps, yes.
[Later, Robertson discusses a protest where an effigy of Rushdie is to be burned]
Robertson: Would you be part of that protest, Yusuf Islam, would you go to a demonstration where you knew that an effigy was going to be burned?
Y. Islam: I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing.
There was a police officer in the studio, and the author Fay Weldon asked him if he was going to arrest Yusuf. He had after all just called for a man’s death on television. The police officer, clearly deeply uncomfortable, writhes in his seat and says nothing. (The footage is on Youtube.)
In a free society we are granted the right to say what we think. But freedom of speech does not extend to calling for someone’s death. That is incitement. Yusuf’s freedom of speech was not and is not being jeopardized. Salman Rushdie’s had been.
So Yusuf, who wrote a song called “Peace Train,” didn’t appear to be that dedicated to peace after all. Certainly not if a novelist was condemned to death by the Ayatollah. And so began a debate that has never really ended. What did Yusuf really mean? Did he actually call for Rushdie’s death? Has he ever apologized for his remarks? Answer: Yes, he actually said that, and no, he’s never apologized.
He has however distanced himself from those remarks. Tying himself in knots, he said to Rolling Stone in 2000: “I was innocently drawn into the whole controversy. So, after many years, I’m glad at least now that I have been given the opportunity to explain to the public and fans my side of the story in my own words. At a lecture, back in 1989, I was asked a question about blasphemy according to Islamic law. I simply repeated the legal view according to my limited knowledge of the scriptural texts, based directly on historical commentaries of the Koran. The next day the newspaper headlines read, ‘Cat Says, Kill Rushdie.’ I was abhorred, but what could I do?” Ignoring the BBC debate, he mentioned another incident in which he’d given the go-ahead for the fatwa. He was only quoting scripture, he said, and the media picked him up on it – “but what could I do?” In his more recent Guardian interview he conceded that he’d argued his case badly. He did not however say he was wrong to support the death warrant.
Yusuf re-launched his pop career in 2006, wrote a musical and continues to record and perform. He has stated that he plays a vital role in bridging the East/West divide and the so called clash of civilizations. I would argue that he could yet play that role. There’s only one problem: He needs to stop pussyfooting around the issue and say he was wrong on every level to support the murder of a novelist for committing a thought crime.
Maybe then we could join him on his peace train.