After emerging from decades of Sharia-induced silence, Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam has been enjoying a comfortable late-career resurgence: He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he went back out on tour to hosannas from old fans who thought they’d never see him perform the old favorites again, and he is now reportedly working on an autobiography. It was thus surprising, given the general adulation he has been receiving, that the Washington Post had the temerity on Monday to publish a lengthy (nearly 4,000 words) rumination on Stevens/Islam’s conversion to Islam, his subsequent endorsement of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s death fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and the lingering significance of his startling departure from the peace-and-love platitudes he had so charmingly voiced in the bright and hopeful days of our youth. Maybe all isn’t forgiven. Or shouldn’t be.
In “The Meaning of Yusuf/Cat Stevens,” Howard Fishman, whom the Post describes only as a “writer, composer and performer based in Brooklyn,” states the key elements of the case matter-of-factly: In 1989, “after Rushdie had officially been targeted because of his portrayal of the prophet Muhammad in his novel ‘The Satanic Verses,’ Stevens had matter-of-factly confirmed that the Koran prescribes death as the punishment for blasphemy.” Confronted on a BBC show, “Stevens was asked directly whether Rushdie deserved to die. ‘Yes, yes,’ he replied, without much hesitation. Were Rushdie, a marked man, to come to him for help, how would he respond? With what he subsequently insisted was nothing more than an ill-advised attempt at dry humor, a straight-faced Stevens said: ‘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.’ When asked whether he would participate in the burning of an effigy of the author, he replied that he would instead hope it were ‘the real thing.’”
Not long after that, I allowed some friends to drag me along to see the alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs, with which I had been unfamiliar. The 10,000 Maniacs had had a hit with a version of Stevens’s “Peace Train” in 1987. I hadn’t known that until the Maniacs’ Natalie Merchant explained during the concert that the band was not going to play the song, and never would again, because “Cat Stevens has gone insane.” The audience applauded wildly.
It may have been the high-water mark of pop culture support for the freedom of speech.
Fishman details how Stevens/Islam immediately began backtracking amid the furor at the time: He issued a press release “indicating that his comments had been manipulated in the editing room and taken out of context (this, despite the fact that the New York Times reported that Stevens had ‘watched a preview of the program today and said in an interview that he stood by his comments’).” On his official website, he makes this patently false claim: “I never called for the death of Salman Rushdie; nor backed the Fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini – and still don’t.” In the very next sentence, he blames Rushdie’s book, not Khomeini’s fatwa, for all the trouble: “The book itself destroyed the harmony between people and nations and created an international crisis.”
Salman Rushdie himself would have none of Stevens’ denials, telling Fishman: “For many years, Yusuf Islam has been pretending he didn’t say the things he said in 1989, when he enthusiastically supported the Iranian terrorist edict against me and others. However, his words are on the record, in print interviews and on television programs.…I’m afraid Cat Stevens got off the peace train a long time ago.”
Indeed. As recently as 2010, there was published on YouTube a nasheed in which the author of “Peace Train” sang: “I’m praying to Allah to give us victory over the kuffar” (unbelievers). Does Yusuf/Cat still pray for victory over the kuffar? What kind of victory?
In 2004, Yusuf Islam was barred from entering the United States because of suspicions that he had been financing jihad terrorism. He acknowledged that some of his money may have gone to jihadis, but he claimed to have given money to them unwittingly.
But the warm glow in which the entertainment industry has bathed him over the last few years makes it clear: Thirty-plus years after the Rushdie fatwa was first issued, no one cares. Jihadis and their enablers and sympathizers aren’t vilified, marginalized, derided, and shunned today; they’re celebrated. Only foes of jihad violence and Sharia oppression get that treatment. The Left-dominated popular culture today has no problem with those who applaud jihad violence.
And so fans will eagerly snap up Yusuf/Cat’s 50th-anniversary deluxe editions of their favorite albums, put them on and ride the peace train once again, just like in their oh-so-idealistic beads-and-gingham days. That their hero, who they thought was driving the train, got off not at the last stop, but at a stop many, many years ago just doesn’t matter. But imagine if Cat Stevens had come out for Trump and appeared at his concerts wearing a MAGA hat. Then he would be shunned and vilified. But rooting for the murder of a writer who offended Islam? Hey, we don’t want to be “Islamophobic” now, do we?