Got News? Crazy Trains and Peace Trains

I joined a couple of other friends to cover the Rally to Restore Sanity/Keep Fear Alive this past weekend. You can check out my 100 or so photos of the event here. The event was funny, had a serious message about being nicer to political enemiesopponents, but was also full of snark. After a couple of hours, we headed back home and watched the rest of the program on Comedy Central. We heard that Yusuf Islam had been part of the program. We didn’t believe it at first but it was true. He really did appear. He performed the song he sang he made famous under his former name Cat Stevens — “Peace Train” — against Ozzy Osbourne singing “Crazy Train.”

Yes, very funny. And you see that Yusuf Islam was the “sanity” part of the equation while Ozzy was the “fear” part, right? Except there’s something that makes this not quite work. Yusuf Islam, anyone my age or older will easily remember, repeatedly called for the death of novelist Salman Rushdie after publication of his Satanic Verses. I remember radio stations organizing “bulldoze Cat Stevens LPs” stunts and the like in response. But apparently the memory has faded and even Islam has tried to obscure the fact that he made all these statements and stood by them after the fact.

What’s really interesting to me, though, is that this wasn’t even mentioned in most mainstream media reports. I don’t know if it’s because reporters were busy or because it didn’t match with their preconceived narrative, but it just wasn’t mentioned.

It didn’t escape the notice of at least one prominent person, though. That would be Salman Rushdie himself. He emailed Nick Cohen of the UK’s Standpoint magazine:

I’ve always liked Stewart and Colbert but what on earth was Cat Yusuf Stevens Islam doing on that stage? If he’s a “good Muslim” like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar then I’m the Great Pumpkin. Happy Halloween.

Later Rushdie spoke to Jon Stewart himself to register his displeasure. Apparently when people call for your death, you remember it:

I spoke to Jon Stewart about Yusuf Islam’s appearance. He said he was sorry it upset me, but really, it was plain that he was fine with it. Depressing.

Good of Standpoint to mention it, at least. Ben Smith at Politico noted the controversy, with an interesting additional detail:

The presence of the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens’ was a dissonant note for some, who find it hard to forgive Yusuf Islam’s backing calls for the death of the author Salman Rushdie in 1989. Islam has since denied he said these things, but they’re pretty clear in the record, and he’s never apologized for them.

Interesting. I didn’t know that Islam had denied saying these things. I learned from Toby Harnden at the Telegraph UK that he even went so far as to scrub videos of him calling for Rushdie’s death from YouTube. Not that there aren’t other examples, of course:

Ed Driscoll has video and audio of the actual words here. Here’s wikipedia’s summary of the Yusuf/Rushdie fatwah controversy.

And here’s Salman Rushdie’s own take, in a 2007 letter to the Telegraph, on what Yusuf meant:

Cat Stevens wanted me dead

However much Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam may wish to rewrite his past, he was neither misunderstood nor misquoted over his views on the Khomeini fatwa against The Satanic Verses (Seven, April 29). In an article in The New York Times on May 22, 1989, Craig R Whitney reported Stevens/Islam saying on a British television programme “that rather than go to a demonstration to burn an effigy of the author Salman Rushdie, ‘I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing’.”

He added that “if Mr Rushdie turned up at his doorstep looking for help, ‘I might ring somebody who might do more damage to him than he would like. I’d try to phone the Ayatollah Khomeini and tell him exactly where this man is’.”

In a subsequent interview with The New York Times, Mr Whitney added, Stevens/Islam, who had seen a preview of the programme, said that he “stood by his comments”.

Let’s have no more rubbish about how “green” and innocent this man was.

Standpoint has more information to debunk the idea that Islam had renounced, apologized or not said what he said over the years.

Apparently some people were complaining that most of the people concerned about Islam’s presence at a “sanity” rally were conservative. ABC News’ Jake Tapper, who profiled Yusuf Islam in 2003 for GQ, tweeted:

wait, pointing out that Cat Stevens aka Yusuf Islam supported the fatwa against Rushdie is right wing? huh? how about: it’s a fact?

So what do you think? Should Islam’s past advocacy for the death of Rushdie been ignored by the media? Should everyone just let it go? And how well is the media doing at explaining the different kinds of Islam? Should Yusuf Islam be presented as a moderate Muslim, an extremist Muslim or something else altogether?

Print Friendly

  • Jerry

    In earlier posts I mentioned how some bloggers here use a review of news stories in order to push their view of the world and this is a stand-out classic. The entire rally is, to me, a truly significant event with important religious and spiritual qualities that was woefully undercovered in the media.

    To answer your question, this was a very small part of the event and not mentioning his background is perfectly appropriate to the scope and important of the event in normal news stories although it is appropriate to mention in magazine-length articles.

    Many who attack Muslims for statements that they made conveniently ignore it when conservatives make terrorist threats such as a few who made veiled threats of taking up arms against the US government if they did not get their way as well as alluding to assassinating President Obama while trying to walk a fine line to avoid getting arrested.

    What he actually said as documented in Wikipedia is:

    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 Qur’an. The next day the newspaper headlines read, “Cat Says, Kill Rushdie.” I was abhorred [appalled?], but what could I do? I was a new Muslim. If you ask a Bible student to quote the legal punishment of a person who commits blasphemy in the Bible, he would be dishonest if he didn’t mention Leviticus 24:16

    And for those that say that they don’t accept what he said is an apology, shouldn’t we also see questions asked about what does the Bible says about forgiveness? (“hard to forgive Yusuf…” versus Matt 6:14-16, Mark 11:25 etc)

    I would have worded such an apology differently. But I think his apology is much better than, say, politicians and religious leaders who have been caught and then tried to shuck and jive their way out of it.

    And, it’s worth noting this comment about apologizing as well which I think should also be noted when this issue comes up: New study shows men are less likely to apologize

    Men have difficulty saying sorry (duh)

  • Dave

    Should Islam’s past advocacy for the death of Rushdie been ignored by the media? Should everyone just let it go?

    The media definitely should go into Islam’s past statements, just as it should go into Al Sharpton’s.

    As far as what kind of Moslem he is, these pigeonholes are illusory. There is every kind of Moslem because the faith includes every kind of human being. Trying to fit the man into an external category is nugatory.

  • Mike Crowl

    Jerry, I think a bit of research with less than a hundred people involved (less than 50 of either sex, in fact) is probably a bit minimal when it comes to determining why men apologise less than women. And noting that this research was to do with relationships between men and women (and romantic ones at that) renders it rather useless in terms of looking at whether or not Cat Stevens should have apologised. I’d be interested to hear about apologies between men and men, or women and women as well, between men and groups of people and so on. Plus the fact that the people themselves noted when they were offended is a bit too subjective to be regarded as true research, I think. Women tend to react more openly to offense when it comes from a man; men react less when it comes from a woman (though what they’re thinking inside is another matter). Men offended by other men react in a wide variety of ways, depending on the relationship and the situation.
    This piece of research doesn’t go nearly wide enough to tell us anything new.

  • Kelly

    Well, I wasn’t even in high school in 89, so I’ve never heard of this. Of course this should be included in articles! Wow, that’s incredible!

  • Karen Vaughan

    For one thing, the train pieces had three rather than two opposing musicians. Yusuf sang Peace Train and Osborne sang Crazy Train, but the train piece everyone could get behind was Love Train sung by the O-Jays. So it isn’t right to say Yusuf was singing the “good” train song.

    I can accept Yusuf’s explanation, but he should actually apologize to Rushdie. And until he does, it merits coverage.

  • Mollie


    Thanks so much for that additional information.

    And who CAN’T get behind the O’Jays, right?

  • Mike Hickerson


    Yes, that is part of Yusuf Islam “actually said,” according to Wikipedia. You left out this part, taken from a Philadelphia Inquirer article:

    On February 21, 1989, Yusuf Islam addressed students at Kingston University in London about his conversion to Islam and was asked about the controversy in the Muslim world and the fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie’s execution. He replied, “He must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear – if someone defames the prophet, then he must die.”

  • Matt

    I just watched the clip, and was astounded that Jon Stewart introduced Yusuf Islam only by his first name. He is clearly working hard to soft-pedal essential information about the man that might be distasteful to his audience.

  • Henry

    Niiiice catch!

  • Jon in the Nati

    Yes, that is part of Yusuf Islam “actually said,” according to Wikipedia. You left out this part, taken from a Philadelphia Inquirer article:

    True, Mike, but I wonder who the ‘he’ is that Cat references. In other words, what was the question? Was the question specifically about Rushdie, or was it a question about a generic hypothetical blasphemer, responded to with a generic ‘he’? I don’t know the answer, because I cannot find the text of the article Wikipedia cites to (probably because it is so old that it does not exist in online form).

    In any case, he clearly has backed off his remarks (or at least explained them in a way that is, to me, quite plausible), so I am not sure it is totally fair to keep hounding him over some probably ill-advised, possibly taken-out-of-context remarks that he made more than twenty years ago.

  • Alia D.

    Last night I heard TMZ mention Cat Steven’s statement about Rushdie. True, they were using this to explain why Rushdie is important, not to comment on Cat Steven. But that just highlights that death threats in response to literary novels are something I would expect to be much more interesting to mainstream journalist Hollywood tabloids like TMZ.

  • Jerry


    Yusuf Islam also renounced music as being anti-Islamic. But as he matured in his faith, his attitude changed. That is what is important to me.

    There was plenty of angst on the right because the left was reaching back into the past to use things people used to believe in against them now. It’s a two way road. Either people should do it for everyone or not.

  • Mike Hickerson


    But as he matured in his faith, his attitude changed. That is what is important to me.

    Same here. I’m not really sure why including the whole story – support for the fatwa,then later distancing himself from it – is so inappropriate. In fact, there’s a narrative to that story that’s much more powerful than Mr. Islam’s own claim that he was misquoted or misinterpreted. If he was misquoted, all of the involved parties seem to be available, so I hope some reporter does some reporting and gets to the bottom of it.

    If I have expressed any angst, let me know about it. I don’t see any problem with asking public figures to explain their past statements. I wish journalists would do it more often. I do have a problem with bringing up past statements without giving the quoted person a chance to respond or without mentioning their more recent positions.

    BTW, here’s a 1989 NY Times article about Islam’s statements on Rushdie. Again, to reiterate, if Islam has backed off these statements, great, let’s get his statement about that, but let’s not pretend that he never said these things.

  • Mollie

    Just as a matter of clarification, Islam hasn’t “backed off” of his statements so much as denied the fact that he made them. It’s an important difference for Salman Rushdie himself, who has never been apologized to.

  • Mike Hickerson

    After a second thought, isn’t it a bigger problem that Stewart didn’t ask Islam to contrast his earlier statements about Rushdie with his current beliefs? If this was a “Rally to Restore Sanity,” Islam’s change of position would have been a much more powerful statement than a silly battle-of-the-bands.

  • Bob Smietana

    I kind of prefer the Long Black Train.

  • Imran
  • bob

    All you have to do is imagine (!) some non Muslim (pick a religion, any religion)on that stage calmly suggesting the execution of some absent Muslim. I guess that *wouldn’t* be sane? Why? I wonder if anyone has asked this great musical talent if he was actually willing to carry out the sentence he supports; can he locate the author and do what he seems to think is his duty? I had the idea that any old Muslim was bound by the decision to murder Mr. Rushdie. Does Mr. Islam (I love that title!) suggest someone else should but not him? Anyone in mind? As for the idea that these statements are 20 years old, well, is there an agreed upon date for such bizarre speech being less bizarre? And threatening to all civilization?

  • Ben

    Interesting story. I never knew he had made those statements. I was a bit young at the time, I guess. He should be asked about it again in light of the sanity position.

  • Humaira

    Peace to all,
    Yusuf(Cat Stevens) did not issue the Fatwa,nor did he support the Fatwa,nor is he an expert in Islam to give the Fatwa. .Please go to Yusuf Islam web site and read it for yourself. Leave the heard mentality aside.Stop the ugly persecution in the press of this good man.
    He is a brilliant Iconic musician.It is so wrong to talk about the controversy that was created some 20 yrs back only because he became a muslim.Yes he was a christian ,he is a muslim now and he preaches ten commandments to Muslims.He is one of the best human beings alive.He has Jesus like character in him.He has wishes for peace and supports thousands of orphans and educates children .
    If only antimuslim or antiIslam bashing was a crime as is antisemitism so many would of this forum would be in jail or lost their jobs.
    Now having said that: Let me quote what Yusuf said:20 yrs back.
    The Lawyer at the British television asked the question:
    “So you don`t think Rushdie should die?”
    Yusuf : “Yes,Yes” .
    Now what part of english do we not understand.The response the is quite clear . When thequeation starts with You don`t think and the answer is ,it means yes I don`tthin Rusdie should die.
    So now this man has helped thousands of youth ,and not hurt one single soul,yet this persecution of an innocent man.It reminds of that of another persecution occuring in the first centuary of another innocent soul.Yusuf is a messaih of love and peace.
    Someone needs stop this insane rabid Dog attack of the Cat

  • Mariano

    Overall, the issue is the unrepentant claims made by Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam.

    He stated, “He must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear” and affirmed it, “yeah, its there in the Qur’an. I couldn’t deny that” then reiterated it, “blasphemy, I could not tell a lie and confirmed that…the Qur’an considers it, without repentance, as a capital offense” and reinforced it, “blasphemy according to Islamic Law, I simply repeated the legal view” and further referenced, “Scriptural texts, based directly on historical commentaries of the Qur’an” and again, “Islamic view based on the Qur’an, the Prophet’s sayings (peace and blessings be upon him) and the rulings of the Caliphs and renowned schools of Islamic jurisprudence.”

    Research on this, including a timeline, is found at: