Saturday, October 30, 2010


I missed the Stewart/Colbert rally, but I can already see that the appearance of Yusuf Islam -- the former Cat Stevens -- is going to get a lot of negative attention from the right. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, he was part of what strikes me as a beautifully constructed bit of comedy:

When surprise guest Yusuf Islam, the British singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, arrived onstage and began singing his hit "Peace Train," Colbert loudly interrupted him and introduced Ozzy Osbourne, who sang his hit, "Crazy Train" before Stewart interrupted him in turn. The two singers then engaged in a musical duel, guided by the two comedians.

Then they all stood aside as the O-Jays sang the Philadelphia soul classic, "Love Train."

On the other hand, it's true that

That would be the same Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens who endorsed the Fatwah against Salman Rushdie. For instance, the New York Times reported (registration required) as follows in 1989:

The musician known as Cat Stevens said in a British television program to be broadcast next week 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."

The singer, who adopted the name Yusuf Islam when he converted to Islam, made the remark during a panel discussion of British reactions to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's call for Mr. Rushdie to be killed for allegedly blaspheming Islam in his best-selling novel "The Satanic Verses." He also said 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," said Mr. Islam, who watched a preview of the program today and said in an interview that he stood by his comments.

Since then, he's strongly condemned the 9/11 attacks and the 7/7 attacks in England; he sang "Peace Train" for the VH1 broadcast of the first responders' benefit concert that took place at Radio City in New York in October 2001, and dedicated half his proceeds from a Cat Stevens box set to 9/11 charities. But a 2007 comment on Rushdie was a bit disconcerting:

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.[13] 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.

The accusation that I supported the Fatwa, therefore, is wholly false and misleading. It was due to my naivety in trying to answer a loaded question posed by a journalist....

He's clearly become a fundamentalist, but a fundamentalist who wants to live (and work) in the larger world while keeping his fundamentalism intact. His attitude about blasphemy is like a lot of very mainstream right-wingers' attitudes about abortion: abortion is murder; murder deserves the death penalty; but if there's a death penalty, it should be carried out by the legal system, not by vigilantes.

I pay attention to all this because I worked at one of the companies that formed was consulted about forming a consortium to put out the original U.S. paperback of The Satanic Verses, as a gesture of publishing-industry solidarity after its original publisher (and publishers, translators, and booksellers worldwide) experienced threats (and some serious violence).

So I'm uncomfortable with Yusuf Islam's continued hard line on this. But I think it's preposterous to imagine that Stewart, Colbert, et al. know this. And I think it's obvious that they wouldn't endorse it.

Whatever your opinion, the political blogosphere's inevitable parsing of this is, I suppose, just the sort of thing this rally was mocking. So I'll stop here and wait for the Stewart/Colbert punch lines in response to our response.

No comments: