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:
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?