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Cat Stevens' comments about Salman Rushdie

Following Ayatollah Khomeini's February 14, 1989 death threat fatwa against author Salman Rushdie, convert to Islam and former recording artist Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens, made statements widely interpreted as endorsing the fatwa. This generated a furor among a number of musicians, radio stations, newspaper editorialists and free speech activists in the West. In response Yusuf denied that his statements were in support of the fatwa, and claimed he was merely giving his interpretation of Islamic law. Critics claim several independent reports, including statements on video, belie his denials.

Statements

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."

Newspapers quickly denounced what was seen as Yusuf Islam's support for the assassination of Rushdie and the next day Yusuf released a statement saying that he was not personally encouraging anybody to be a vigilante, and that he was only stating that blasphemy is a capital offense according to the Qur'an.

However on March 8, 1989, while speaking in London's Regents Park Mosque, Yusuf Islam was asked by a Christian Science Monitor reporter how he would "cope with the idea of killing a writer for writing a book." He is reported to have replied:

In Islam there is a line between let's say freedom and the line which is then transgressed into immorality and irresponsibility and I think as far as this writer is concerned, unfortunately, he has been irresponsible with his freedom of speech. Salman Rushdie or indeed any writer who abuses the prophet, or indeed any prophet, under Islamic law, the sentence for that is actually death. It's got to be seen as a deterrent, so that other people should not commit the same mistake again.

Two months later Yusuf Islam appeared on a British television courtroom-style program, Hypotheticals.

In the episode, ("A Satanic Scenario") Stevens/Islam is recorded having this exchange with moderator and Queens Counsel Geoffrey Robertson:

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.

The content of the broadcast was reported in the New York Times on May 23, 1989, a week before the show's planned airing. Also reported was that several Muslim participants complained about the way the show was edited, leaving out the interpretation of Islamic law on which they were basing their responses to the hypothetical question posed.

In a later 1989 interview Yusuf Islam also seemed to reaffirm his earlier comments:

I would have hoped that it'd be the real thing.

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.

Appearance in the novel

While few have doubted Yusuf's piety or Islamic conservatism, some believe that the character "Bilal X" in Rushdie's book is a caricature of Yusuf Islam, and one observer has theorized that this may have been partially responsible for his reaction to The Satanic Verses. Bilal X is portrayed by Rushdie as the "favored lieutenant" of "the Imam", a character based on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Bilal X's "well-nourished, highly trained" voice serves as "a weapon of the West turned against its makers." (As is common in fiction, the Black Muslim Bilal X differs from his purported real life model in some details. He is a former successful African-American pop singer who has converted to Islam and who works for the Iranian "Imam," i.e., a Shia Ayatollah; whereas Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam is of Greek/Swedish background, was born and raised in London, and is associated with a conservative strain of Sunni Islam.)

Denials

Yusuf has not retracted any statements he made about the fatwa and Rushdie, but has said the comments he made on Hypotheticals television program - “I would probably call up Ayatollah Khomeini”; and, rather than burn an effigy of the author, I would have preferred to burn the “real thing” - were "in hindsight ... in bad taste", but "part of a well-known British national trait ... dry humor on my part."

He went on to say:

Providentially, they kept in one important response to a final question posed directly to me by Geoffrey Robertson QC. At the end of the debate he asked me to imagine if Salman Rushdie was taken to court in Britain and the Jury found him ‘not guilty’ of any crime – Blasphemy or otherwise – and dismissed the case, what I would do. I clearly stated that I would have to accept the decision and fully abide by the law! And that was no joke.

On other occasions he has maintained his innocence and claimed to be a victim of media misinterpretation. In a 2000 Rolling Stone magazine interview:

I'm very sad that this seems to be the No. 1 question people want to discuss. I had nothing to do with the issue other than what the media created. I was innocently drawn into the whole controversy. So, after many years, I'm glad at least now that I have been given the opportunity to explain to the public and fans my side of the story in my own words. 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, 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

On his personal spiritual website he wrote:

I never called for the death of Salman Rushdie; nor backed the Fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini--and still don’t. The book itself destroyed the harmony between peoples and created an unnecessary international crisis.

When asked about my opinion regarding blasphemy, I could not tell a lie and confirmed that--like both the Torah and the Gospel--the Qur’an considers it, without repentance, as a capital offense. The Bible is full of similar harsh laws if you’re looking for them. However, the application of such Biblical and Qur’anic injunctions is not to be outside of due process of law, in a place or land where such law is accepted and applied by the society as a whole...

Criticism and backlash

Stevens/Islam's comments caused a backlash at the time. The pop group 10,000 Maniacs deleted the Cat Stevens song "Peace Train," which they had recorded for their 1987 In My Tribe album, from subsequent pressings of their album as a protest against Stevens/Islam's remarks. Several US stations stopped playing Cat Stevens records. Radio talk show host Tom Leykis of KFI-AM in Los Angeles called for a mass burning of Cat Steven's records, later changed to a mass steamrolling. Around the Western world, "outraged liberals and Christians dug out their Cat Stevens albums from the 1970s and smashed them in the streets." Islam claimed that he had earlier unsuccessfully asked his record company to stop the release of his Cat Stevens records but they refused on economic grounds.

Commenting on the controversy regarding the United States government's 2004 refusal to allow Stevens/Islam to enter the country, Middle East scholar Juan Cole criticized Stevens/Islam, saying he "never forgave him [Stevens] for advocating the execution of Salman Rushdie," and claiming Stevens/Islam "later explained this position away by saying that he did not endorse vigilante action against Rushdie, but would rather want the verdict to be carried out by a proper court."

Salman Rushdie himself, in a letter to editor to The Daily Telegraph complained of what he believed was Yusuf's attempts to "rewrite his past," and calls his claims of innocence "rubbish.

References

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