Via the Huffington Post’s religion channel, we learn that the folk-pop artist formerly known as Cat Stevens is currently on a tour of the United States. What we inexplicably don’t pick up from the article is why Stevens, who has gone by Yusuf Islam since the late 1970s, is persona non grata among many people who care about free speech (the HuffPo just gives us some vague allusions to “dragon-sized myths” and “unsavory controversies”).
I’d like to correct that oversight. We’re going to have to time-travel back to 1989.
Only a week after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued an Islamic death sentence against Salman Rushdie for publishing the supposedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses, Stevens/Islam was asked about the affair.
Before an audience of London college students, he answered:
“[Rushdie] must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear — if someone defames the prophet, then he must die.”
The next day, he walked back that statement by explaining that he had only meant to illustrate what the Qur’an says about blasphemers and apostates. Mr. Islam hadn’t personally advocated Rushdie’s execution, he said.
And at that point, he might still have deserved the benefit of the doubt (although why anyone would follow a religion with such barbaric, illiberal precepts remains, as always, an open question).