Ron Radosh

Yusuf Islam's Changing Views: Were Stewart and Colbert Taken In? (Updated)

I too watched the entire three-hour Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert rally on Saturday. But unlike my friend and colleague Roger L. Simon, I enjoy both of these comedians, and have at times laughed heartily with them, even when finding I disagree with their political assumptions and perspective. Even at this event, Colbert appropriately skewered NPR for refusing to allow its correspondents to attend, out of fear that had they done so, people would have gained the impression that the network was somehow liberal.

But as most everyone has said — and all the critics are correct about this — either the two ignored or did not pay attention to Yusuf Islam’s positions on the fatwa against  Salman Rushdie or his very evidently fundamentalist view of Islam. The best comment has just appeared today, and is on the blog of Standpoint, the top-notch British magazine.

As the liberal journalist Nick Cohen has written, “What ‘Cat’ ought to have done was apologise to Rushdie and commit himself to the right to criticise  power in whatever form it takes, but he has not and American leftists have yet to learn that they cannot be a little bit liberal. They can’t denounce the idiocy of Fox and ignore the idiocies of religion. Maybe they will never learn.”

I think the problem is Stewart’s inability to comprehend the nature of jihadist ideology and his seeming ignorance of the very existence of a radical Islamic world-view. Indeed, he argues, as he did at the rally, that there are millions of Muslims throughout the world, and only a small group engages in terrorism. He seems to belie the very obvious point that those who do engage in terrorism are motivated by their concept of Islam. To deal with this, as the actor Don Novello (Father Guido Sarducci) put it at his “benediction,” more is needed than for both Jews and Muslims to accept their similarity because both faiths forbid the eating of pork. If only it was that easy, Father G.

And here is what Salman Rushdie said about Yusuf Islam in 2007, in a letter to the Telegraph:

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.

Salman Rushdie, New York

And in 1997, Andrew Anthony of The Observer told this to Cohen:

He told me in 1997, eight years after saying on TV that Rushdie should be lynched, that he was in favour of stoning women to death for adultery. He also reconfirmed his position on Rushdie. He set up the Islamia school in Brent, which is currently undergoing council-backed expansion. Its mission statement three years ago explicitly stated that its aim was to bring about the submission of the individual, the community and the world at large to Islam. For this aim it now receives state funding. Its an incubator of the most bonkers religious extremism and segregation, and is particularly strong on the public erasure of women. Why do people go to such lengths to ignore these aspects of Yusuf Islam’s character and philosophy?

I have a hunch that Yusuf Islam has evolved in his thinking. He gave up music for twenty years, because he thought Islam forbid such frivolities (all while living very well off his five-year stint as a star from royalties). Then he decided a few years ago to record a record of Islamic spiritual music. Finally, in the past two years, he started to sing and record new pop songs, and to perform his old hits — as he did at the rally.

But if he has changed, what he has to do is publicly recant his radical fundamentalist views, and apologize formally to Rushdie. If he is indeed a true moderate Muslim, as he wants people to think, nothing less will do. And those who are artists — like Colbert and Stewart — must stand with the likes of Rushdie before giving a platform to the possibly unrepentant Yusuf Islam. That is, unless they prefer to stand by their own illusions and ignore reality. Are liberal comics so dense that cannot do what is right?


I have just received the following information from a sharp reader, who sent me the following. I was not aware, nor have I seen the following about Yusuf Islam’s most recent views recently cited anywhere. Here they are:

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 [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.

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…

I think this does show that Yusuf Islam has to some degree modified his earlier views. And this should be encouraged. So — I’ll gladly hum along on “Peace Train.”

UPDATE: Tuesday, Nov.2, 11 AM, EST.

Today, Nick Cohen reports on the conversation he had yesterday with Salman Rushdie. This is what Rushdie told him on the phone:

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.

Drawing appropriate analogy, Cohen writes “ ‘Pathetic’  is the word I would use. If members of the Tea Party said that American intellectuals who renounced Christianity deserved to die for their apostasy would Stewart be fine with that too? Of course he wouldn’t. His eyes would roll, his voice would thunder and that charming schoolboy smile would vanish from his face. He would never forget, until they repudiated.”

Those who commented on my post yesterday, pointing out that Yusuf “Cat Stevens” Islam’s two statements do not in fact apologize directly for his approval of the fatwa against Rushdie are correct. He still denies saying what he in fact very clearly did say. Before anyone should ask the singer to appear at their event- especially one that is supposedly meant to foster harmony and sanity- Yusuf Islam should be asked to clearly and unequivocally repudiate his past statements, and admit that he in fact made them.

On The New Criterion website, Michael Weiss makes the further very shrewd observation in the form of a question about why Yusuf was invited to participate.  “Would it be rude to guess at his decision to invite Cat Stevens,” Weiss asks, “a.k.a. Yusuf Islam, to perform at last weekend’s mass rally in implausibly denied partisanship at the National Mall? Who better than a British-Cypriot convert to Islam with multi-platinum records under his caftan to combat the vicious demonization of Muslims by the Tea Party and anti-mosque fanatics. Except that Yusuf Islam is a right-wing fundamentalist who makes Sarah Palin look like Bella Abzug.  Nothing is more of a ratings boost for that hebephrenic pseudo-historian Glenn Beck than exhibiting a medieval apologist for murder as a spokesperson for ‘sane’ America.”

So far, no response on the air to this from Jon Stewart.