Peace Train? The Atlantic revisits Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, Salman Rushdie


The paparazzi haven’t caught on yet, but I’m famous, kind of.  I’m in the cyberpages of The Atlantic this weekend, a feature item in “Atlantic Wire’s The Long War Between Salman Rushdie and Cat Stevens” by Max Fisher.  The “war” refers to the “still-running and extremely bitter war of words between the two men.”

However, the words from the crooner were not merely “bitter” — as I described in my post, Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam was supporting murder, however much he may (or may not) have changed his position since, in carefully crafted ambiguous statements, such as the one here. Stevens clearly wishes to move beyond the controversy, yet fails to show the slightest remorse or concern for the well-being for those whose lives he has further endangered (the list has grown much longer since Rushdie’s 1989 fatwa, including the murder of several people).

Fisher notes:

The conflict reignited most recently when a reporter asked Rushdie for his thoughts on Stevens’s performance at the Washington, D.C., rally held by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert.

Actually, Rushdie was text messaging a friend in the media, not responding to a reporter’s questions.

Fisher noted in my follow-up post I was “reporting more of Rushdie’s unhappiness.”  Well… yes… I guess “unhappiness” describes it.  I’d be pretty unhappy too if someone endorsed nutters who were putting a bounty on my head.  (He also says Rushdie was telling “another Stanford blogger” — nope, it was still Nick Cohen, a Standpoint blogger.  )

It sounds like Fisher was writing on the trot, like most bloggers.  I plead guilty to the same charge.

Although I was aware that Salman Rushdie was making more and more public appearances (in fact, I covered one here), I wasn’t aware that he has no longer considers himself officially in “hiding.” Brave man.  I understand that a fatwa can only be repealed by those issuing them, and Khomeini is dead.  That means any nutcase who wants to make a name for himself can pick off Rushdie during his guest stint at Emory University or during one of his lectures on contemporary literature.

Fisher comments: “Havens [sic]  concludes by lamenting the state of free speech, although it’s not clear if she’s criticizing Rushdie’s objection that Stevens would appear at the rally or Stevens’s possible support for killing Rushdie.”

Got me again — writing on the trot.  My free-speech comments may have appeared to come out of the blue, so apologies for that.  Here’s where I was coming from:  When I raise topics like these, I get objections that, for example, Rushdie isn’t such a red-hot writer anymore. I must nowadays reaffirm that I support a writer’s right to write even a bad book without being stabbed, gunned down, or beheaded.  Similarly, when I defend Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s right to exist, even when she’s offensive, I’m told that she’s received support from the right-wingers.  I support non-violent free speech for the left and right.  Similarly, with Molly Norris, I’m told what a bad idea it was to launch a “Everybody Draw Mohammed” day, and that she was “asking for it” by doing so (even though she later withdrew her suggestion and apologized for it) — but the whole point of being a cartoonist is to be edgy, and nobody “asks for” a fatwa.

I will even support Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam’s right to sing Golden Oldies at a rally for “sanity” — but I also reserve the right to call it out — and I will call out the lazy, ironic, faux-sophistication of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, & co., as they sit on the sidelines on important moral issues, as if the issues do not have anything to do with them.

In the words of Jeff Sypeck:

“As far as I’m concerned, if you’re breaking no other laws, then you can say whatever you want, draw whatever you want, and deface or defile anything that’s your own property, be it a flag, a holy symbol, an effigy, you name it. However, in return, I reserve the right to judge you, denounce you, lobby against you, tell others how wrong you are, and speak vociferously in reply.”

My comments on this issue are becoming boilerplate.  I guess this isn’t covered in 9th grade civics anymore.  Witness this witless comment on the Standpoint article:

… The point is that Jon Stewart didn’t say he was “fine with it,” Salman Rushdie interpreted Jon Stewart’s apology as such. Who cares what Rushdie thinks anyway. Khomeini is dead and Salman Rushdie, well, he’s yesterday’s man too… indeed if it wasn’t for the dated Fatwa no-one would even be talking about him anymore.

Rest in Peace: Theo van Gogh

It’s hard to believe we’ve arrived at a juncture where we have to explain all this stuff.  Again and again and again.

Peace is more than dreaming and singing songs.  Sometimes it requires courage.  In fact, it doesn’t mean much unless it does.  Otherwise, it’s just the easy pacifism of the non-combatant.

Some people “get it.”  Last March, Michael Gordon-Smith wrote for Australian Broadcasting wrote:

Ultimately, however, it’s not something to be made light of. It’s not a yawn. It mattered then and it matters now. Yusuf supported killing a man because someone took offence at what he had written.  …

But 20 years on Yusuf seems to think all the wrongs were done by others. Journalists asked him loaded questions. His replies were misinterpreted. It was the book, not the call for violence that “destroyed the harmony between peoples and created an unnecessary international crisis”.   At worst, his remarks were silly but they were dry English humour. …
He will probably sing Peace Train at his concerts:

Now I’ve been crying lately,
thinking about the world as it is
Why must we go on hating,
why can’t we live in bliss?

It’s time he stopped singing the question and answered it. He had an opportunity to stand for peace and tolerance when the need for such a voice was critical. Instead, when Geoffrey Robertson asked the question, he found no room for tolerance or doubt, but with dogmatic certainty took the side of violence and tyranny.

For me, it remains the most important thing he ever did. Unless he revisits the issue and finds room for difference, in my mind he’s forever defined by the choice he made in those weeks in 1989. The only message I hear from him is the echo of Khomeini’s threat not just to Salman Rushdie but to every free thinker in the world: If you speak your mind we may kill you.

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7 Responses to “Peace Train? The Atlantic revisits Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, Salman Rushdie”

  1. Jeff Says:

    Cynthia, I thank you for the one and only time I’m likely to see the statement “In the words of Jeff Sypeck”!

    I’m not that old, but I remember when supporting death sentences for writers or artists because of things they said or made was considered disgustingly, undeniably illiberal—especially when the reason was blasphemy, of all things. These days, though, I shuttle between ultra-blue northwest D.C. and ultra-red Louisiana, so I’m struck by the extent to which political opinions are less about principle and more the function of tribalism and social signaling. The thinking on the Rushdie/Stevens matter seems to be: “This isn’t what the cool kids are talking about right now; besides, if I concede the point, I might cede ground to those evil people I usually disagree with. I don’t want to appear to support them.”

    I support any artist and writer of any religious or political affiliation against those of any religious or political affiliation who wish to harm or kill them. Why are people having such a hard time saying this? I’m starting to think no one believes it anymore.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    “Tribalism and social signaling.” You took the words out of my mouth, Jeff. Couldn’t agree more.

    In fact, you may see your last paragraph indented some day, beneath “In the words of Jeff Sypeck” …

  3. Heath Misercola Says:

    Major thanks for the article.Much thanks again. Keep writing.

  4. ramadan 2012 Says:

    ramadan 2012…

    […]Peace Train? The Atlantic revisits Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, Salman Rushdie | The Book Haven[…]…

  5. taourirt Says:

    I support any artist and writer of any religious or political affiliation against those of any religious or political affiliation who wish to harm or kill them. Why are people having such a hard time saying this? I’m starting to think no one believes it anymore.

  6. Aidan Mcgrath Says:

    Hi Cynthia
    It is a matter of absolute mystery to me why these “liberal” thinkers find common cause with an admitted supporter of a murderous fatwa, as you point out not only the unsuccessful – so far – one against Mr Rushdie, but also those unfortunates who have been murdered. I admit that every time I hear an old Cat Stevens song played my primary emotion is real anger that those playing the records are financially supporting this guy. I actually watched Stevens/Islam on Ireland’s Late Late Show back then, and was horrified when he made a similar statement in response to questions from Gay Byrne. On that occasion he said he would be prepared to kill Rushdie himself. To be fair to Byrne he called subsequently for Stevens records to be banned, but just today one of the presenters played a recent release from the same guy.
    Not for the first time I emailed the station objecting as a license payer to this misuse of my money, but I am not holding my breath for a satisfactory outcome.
    Regards Aidan

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Can’t say I won’t listen to his old music when I hear it occasionally, Aidan. But that was then, this is now.

    Thanks for checking in.