On Valentine’s Day 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued this fatwa: “The author of the ‘Satanic Verses’ book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.” The Ayatollah was referring to Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The Satanic Verses, published the previous September. Among those who voiced their support for the death sentence was Yusuf Islam, formerly known as “Peace Train” singer Cat Stevens, who has since dropped “Islam” from his stage name.
Stevens wrote “Here Comes My Baby” and “The First Cut Is The Deepest,” hits in 1967 for the Tremoloes and P. P. Arnold, respectively. During the 1970s, he became popular as a folkie singer-songwriter, the “English James Taylor.” Cat’s hits included “Moonshadow,” in which it’s no sweat if he loses his hands because he won’t have to work anymore, and “Wild World,” in which he warns his departing lover that the world outside their relationship is a wicked place that will ruin her nice clothes.
Yusuf, who converted to Islam in 1977 after nearly drowning in the Pacific, protests that he has been misquoted and misrepresented with respect to Rushdie and the fatwa. In the first of the FAQs on Yusuf’s website, he writes, “I never called for the death of Salman Rushdie; nor backed the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini—and still don’t.”
Unfortunately for Yusuf, he did both of those things in a televised appearance in May 1989, taking part in a panel discussion on The Satanic Verses called “A Satanic Scenario,” an episode of the Granada series Hypotheticals. Moderator Geoffrey Robertson, Queen’s Counsel, asked Yusuf: “You don’t think that this man deserves to die?” After clarifying that they were talking about Salman Rushdie, the singer replied, “Yes, yes.”
Asked if he would give Rushdie shelter, Yusuf said that, on the contrary, “I’d try to phone the Ayatollah Khomeini and tell him exactly where this man is.” Asked if he would go to a burning of Rushdie in effigy, the singer replied, “I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing, but actually, no, if it’s just an effigy, I don’t think I’d be that moved to go there.”
Addressing the broadcast elsewhere in his FAQs, Yusuf now claims that he “was drawn into making stupid and offensive jokes about Rushdie” that were “meant to lighten the moment and raise a smile.” Saying that Rushdie deserved to die, should be handed over to the Ayatollah Khomeini, and burned, were all, Yusuf insists, “a touch of dry humor on my part.” OK, suppose he’s telling the truth: then what’s the joke in replying “yes” when asked if Rushdie “deserves to die?” Does that raise a smile on your face? And if the program misrepresented his position at the time, why did Yusuf tell the New York Times that he stood by his remarks after watching a preview of the show?
Rushdie is not convinced. In a 2007 letter to the
, the author wrote, “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.
Yusuf released his first album in 28 years in 2006. Explaining the long break in an interview with Rolling Stone Middle East earlier this year, he said that “for a time, I was listening to conservative voices telling me that music is forbidden, even though you won’t find in the Quran any mention of the word music. It’s all connotations and interpretations about this kind of issue. So I was just hands off. I said ‘Let’s leave it. Let’s get down and get real. Let’s live my life.’” Sounds like a guy with a wicked sense of humor.
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