Cat Stevens & Salman Rushdie

I wrote an impressionistic piece recently about the Jon Stewart Rally to Restore Sanity.  I had a digression about Cat Stevens:

Yusuf Islam, who used to be Cat Stevens, who used to be Steven Katz, participated in the rally’s elaborate train metaphor, with his signature song “Peace Train.”  When I was too young to be desperate, I played a Cat Stevens vinyl over and over, and I heard the lyrics I wished to hear.  And I survived.  I thanked him directly for that on a Fort Worth, Texas radio station back in the 1980s.  It doesn’t matter to me that he’s flirted with fatwas.  That is the way our brain works.

Did I trivialize the unconscionable fatwa against Salman Rushdie?  Perhaps.

Salman Rushdie is a British-Indian novelist and essayist, whose 1988 fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, treated the origin of disputed verses in the Koran.  Though a piece of fiction, the book was banned for alleged blasphemy against Islam in India, Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore, and Venezuela.

On Valentine’s Day in 1989, Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued his famous fatwa calling for Rushdie’s execution and offering a bounty for his death.

Let us all agree — and I really mean, if you disagree, you’re disturbing and dangerous — that Khomeini’s fatwa was stupid, benighted, and literally murderously hostile to core Western liberal values.

It was easy to condemn it.  Indeed, the British government appropriately broke diplomatic relations with Iran over the incident.

Nearly 22 years later, Salman Rushdie is alive and well, thanks partly to British protection, but also partly to the fact that millions of Muslims, many with access to Rushdie, thought the fatwa idiotic.

Good for millions of Muslims.  Now what about Yusuf Islam?

Heroes for me: Martin Luther King, Napolean III, John Adams, Winston Churchill, Saladin, and the only pop person, Cat Stevens.

On the BBC program Hypotheticals, Yusuf Islam had this exchange about Salman Rushdie:

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.

[Some minutes later, Robertson on the subject of a protest where an effigy of Salman 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.

Yusuf Islam insisted he was joking.  Could be.  One could joke about murder of another human being for blasphemy.  Not very funny, but could be.

Here’s my take.  A lad became Cat Stevens and made some spectacular music.  Then he wanted to join another club, and became Yusuf Islam, and renounced music.  The rules of this new club were pretty strict.  He had to prove himself.  A white guy making it with his new club demanded something a wee bit extraordinary.

So he was perfectly sincere in welcoming the death of Salman Rushdie, and perfectly sincere in thinking, holy sh*t, that’s not me.  It would have helped enormously if he had said the latter, which he never did.

He could have made a huge impact denouncing the Rushdie fatwa.  But he didn’t.  Shame on you Yusuf.

I listen to Cat Stevens music now, and, well, it still moves me the way it used to.


2 Responses to Cat Stevens & Salman Rushdie

  1. PK says:

    Who the heck is Steven Katz? I hope you were trying to be funny . . . that was not his name.

    • Not so much trying to be funny as tagging my generation. Back in the Seventies, when I was listening near-worshipfully to Cat Stevens, we all thought he was really Steven Katz — as this thread illustrates:

      Which made his evolution to Yusuf Islam the more pointed.

      No, he was never Steven Katz, except when I recall so vividly the days and nights of playing and replaying his albums.

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