Salman Rushdie speaks out: The troubling case of Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Yusuf Islam)


Film clip above deleted from Youtube for “copyright infringement.” Ummmm… how much “copyright infringement” can you have in 10 seconds?

Salman Rushdie has spoken out against the appearance of Yusuf Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens) at a weekend rally: “I’ve always liked Stewart and Colbert but what on earth was Cat Yusuf Stevens Islam doing on that stage? If he’s a ‘good Muslim’ like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar then I’m the Great Pumpkin. Happy Halloween.”  You may recall that the popular singer supported the fatwa against Rushdie, way back when.

The case of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam is a troubling one.  He was one of my favorite singers in my misspent youth — one of those cases where I don’t want to believe the truth, either.  I applaud his charity work for UNICEF, Palestinian refugees, and the children in Gaza. But the data on basic human freedoms are pretty damning.

This from the Observer‘s Andrew Anthony: “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 Islamic 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?”

A recap: While I don’t care for the hectoring tone of the BBC inquisition by Geoffrey Robertson, Queen’s Counsel, the 1989 grilling is here.  An excerpt:

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.
[Later, Robertson discusses a protest where an effigy of Rushdie is to be burned]
Robertson: Would you be part of that protest, Yusuf Islam, would you go to a demonstration where you knew that an effigy was going to be burned?
Y. Islam: I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing.

The Cat in ’76

Troubling, also, is the disappearance of Rushdie’s youtube comments here and here and here, due to “copyright claims by Yusuf Islam.”  How much of a copyright infringement can you do in 10 seconds?  (Isn’t ten seconds of anything fair use?)

I’d like to believe that the singer’s objections to these youtube clips signals a reconsideration of views.  But a low-key objection (let alone legal threats) is not enough at this point; what is needed is a full repudiation.

In 2007, Rushdie wrote a letter to the Sunday Telegraph:

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.

All in all, his Saturday appearance was a strange way to revel in sanity. His appearance in a rally to celebrate post-modern irony goes beyond irony — especially remembering the solidarity of Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Andrei Voznesensky, Tariq Ali, Adam Michnik, Harold Pinter, and many, many others in 1989.  Mr. Yusuf, I still love your music, but… I’ll stand by Rushdie, even though I don’t like him much.

Am I missing something in this picture?  Please let me know.

Cat Stevens/Yusuf Muslim sings “Peace Train.”  Rushdie remains in hiding.

Postscript on 11/2:  More dispiriting news from Rushdie posted above, here.

Postscript on 11/14: The Atlantic weighs in — more here.

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33 Responses to “Salman Rushdie speaks out: The troubling case of Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Yusuf Islam)”

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  5. Carsten Says:

    for the record, here is his opinion in his own words:

    “I never called for the death of Salman Rushdie; nor backed the Fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini – and still don’t.”

  6. Friday finds « STEVENHARTSITE Says:

    […] Cat Stevens or Yusuf Islam — he’s still a theocratic creep. […]

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:


    Well, at this point, Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam has said so many things, no? Please read the full post above for more of his comments.

    As I said in my post, what is needed now is him to make full, public repudiation of all violence in the name of religion, and call for the lifting of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. For that matter, he might denounce the threats of violence against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Mollie Norris, the Danish cartoonist, and the growing class of people who need protection 24/7.

    Peace is tough business, and often calls for more than the singing of songs.

    While he’s at it, he might want to call off his copyright goons so we can view what Rushdie has to say in the video above.

  8. Carsten Says:


    fyi I did read your full post, as well as see the full video where Yusuf Islam makes those remarks, and it was not a pretty sight: an enraged man prepared to go to extremes. But you asked if something was missing in the picture and I believed his currently explicitly stated position was one such piece in the puzzle.
    Exactly what it means I can not say, but I’m hard pressed to think he would say one thing and believe the complete opposite, especially considering he obviously said exactly what he meant on the previous, quoted occasions.
    As for repudiations, agree that would be nice to hear. This piece at least gives some indication on where he stands on free speech, now:

  9. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Carsten. I find his remarks on the link you posted disingenuous, and carefully framed to avoid repudiating his previous, or perhaps current, position.

    I can understand that his situation may be difficult one within the Islamic community. But I submit that the position of Salman Rushdie (and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Molly Norris, and others) is even more difficult: their very lives continue are seriously jeopardized by the very freedoms he suggests that he upholds. More to the point, their lives were made even more precarious by his public statements. I can see he wishes to protect himself and move forward, but I can see no concern about protecting others.

    My point is that however understandable his position, he should not be representing “peace” and “sanity” until he comes to grips with the fact that both need a little courage — and it was irresponsible of Jon Stewart to use him as a model for either. Courage doesn’t require pages of defense. In this case, it begins with three words: “I was wrong.”

  10. SPATWATCH : 在Salman Rushdie和猫Stevens之间的长期战争 · My China – 我的中国 Says:

    […] figures? Well, it’s long and confusing and involved. Fortunately Stanford literary blogger Cynthia Haven has chronicled the entire thing, including a bizarre and apparently ongoing side-conflict involving YouTube videos and copyright […]

  11. james 'save marriage now' hardy Says:

    Cat Stevens doesn’t want us to see something. It’s a very unusual case if you ask me.


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  12. james 'save marriage now' hardy Says:

    Cat Stevens doesn’t want us to see something. Very unusual case if you ask me.


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  17. Jason Holloway Says:

    YouTube will take something down reflexively quite often to avoid lawsuits. That’s been my experience.

  18. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Jason.

  19. Keith Conning Says:

    Many points stated and observations shared. I comment on a paradigm, expressed by Cynthia Haven’s words, “what is needed now is him to make full, public repudiation of all violence in the name of religion, and call for the lifting of the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. …

    Peace is tough business, and often calls for more than the singing of songs.”

    My observation is that concepts such as “peace,” “violence,” “God,” “Allah,” “truth,” and “love” are invariably defined by the speaker’s religion’s teaching and worldview. Muslims use the same terms that Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and others use, but with significant – even opposite – functional meanings. Christians view peace as an absence of violence resulting from general agreement about their God’s expectations, goals, methods, attitude toward humanity, and a fairly broad tolerance – if not outright approval – for beliefs that disagree with their own. Muslims view peace as an absence of other religions, heresies against their own, and a society structured around the Koran as codified in Islamic Law, including differential treatment of living unbelievers, jihad, clerical edicts calling for war against other cultures and execution of the troublesome (such as Rushdie), and the view that “God” is “Allah” AS REVEALED EXCLUSIVELY IN THE KORAN. Jews, Christians, western historians, and archeologists who stay above the religious fray substantially agree on Biblical history including the descent of the “chosen” people from Abraham and his wife, Sarah, through Isaac (b.2017BCE), not through those of Ishmael (b.2031BCE), son of Abraham’s wife’s slave girl. This view has been agreed upon since the events occurred until more than 2600 years later when Islam declared it was the other way around. The Biblical view and the Q’ranic view of life, righteousness, love, truth, and other values use the same words, but different meanings. It is simply unrealistic for westerners, influenced by Christianity and Judaism, to discuss how to resolve the conflicts with Islam until they “translate” these common terms into what they mean to Muslims.

  20. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Pardon my delay in posting this, Keith. We’ve had an unusually heavy spam load to sort through these past few weeks.

  21. Martin Boyd Says:

    Am I the only one who senses a curious inconsistency between support for Rushdie’s right to freedom of expression, however offensive it may be to the sensibilities of many in the Muslim world, and condemnation of Yusuf Islam’s freely expressed views, however offensive they may be to our sensibilities? Like many of us, I was perplexed by the remarks he made about Rushdie back in 1989, but I think his subsequent admission that they were clumsy attempts at dry humour and made in poor taste, and his categorical statement that he doesn’t support the opinion asserted by the Ayatollah that Rushdie should be summarily executed for blasphemy, make it clear enough where he stands. Perhaps he feels that making the kind of “full repudiation” that would satisfy you, Cynthia, would be dishonest on his part, because he personally finds Rushdhie’s novel blasphemous. I don’t think there would be anything at all courageous about such a full repudiation if it weren’t heartfelt; it would merely be pandering to our desire to have him conform to our understanding of how the author of “Peace Train” should express himself. If we respect basic human freedoms, shouldn’t we respect his right to peacefully express himself, or refrain from expressing himself, as his own conscience dictates?

  22. Cynthia Haven Says:

    We do respect his right to express himself, Martin. The difference between his case and the Rushdie case is that no one has put out a fatwa on Cat Stevens. His life is not in danger. We extend to Cat Stevens the very right he would deny to others.

    There is a huge difference between pointing out that someone’s opinions are odious, and denying him his right to express those opinions. As a nation, we draw the line at the incitement to violence. Cat Stevens hasn’t crossed that line, so it falls in the range of permissable speech. That doesn’t mean others are obligated to give him air time. Frankly, in view of what’s happened in the last few months, I find his comments about the Islamic state chilling.

    He has a right to his opinions – and we have a right to condemn those opinions. We have the right to picket his concert, and write blog posts condemning him. Words have consequences.

    (Apologies for the delay in posting – spam filters, etc.)

  23. Martin Boyd Says:

    I’m sorry Cynthia, but if you agree that Yusuf Islam hasn’t “crossed the line”, then I’m not clear on what you’re condemning him for. Apart from his bizarre remarks on that TV broadcast back in the 1980s, which he has subsequently admitted were tasteless jokes, Yusuf Islam has never, as far as I’m aware, made any comment to suggest that he is intent on denying Rushdie his right to express himself. Can you clarify what statements of his you are referring to that you believe he should be condemned for?

    Personally, I find the opinions of many public figures odious, and I believe I should have the right to disagree with them, but I don’t believe that picketing their concerts or issuing condemnations against them as people is warranted, or even fair, if freedom of expression means anything at all. As Rushdie himself has put it, “what is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

  24. Dan Wasil Says:

    The continuing deliberate obtuseness of some, including Mr. Boyd, does little to nothing to further their rehabilitation of Yusuf Islam. Repeated clarifications and detailed explanations fall on deaf ears, ears which do not want to hear. Cat Stevens personally contributed to the vile and dangerous call for the murder of an artist. There is no ambiguity. For these actions, in full understanding of the celebrity impact his statements had, and have, Mr. Islam bears forever our condemnation. That this is a continuing challenge was shown this morning on CBS “Sunday Morning” where this entire vile and sad chapter was glossed over.

  25. Aidan McGrath Says:

    I disagree with Cynthia about whether he crossed the line. Absolutely and without any doubt he did on Irish television (RTE) on the Late Late Show in an interview with Gay Byrne. He said not only was Khomeini correct in calling for the fatwa but that he himself was prepared to do it.

  26. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Aidan, I think “incitement” would mean standing up and saying, “Everybody, get a knife, go out into the streets, here’s his address.” Endorsing Khomeini’s fatwa and saying that he was willing to do it is not an incitement for others to commit violence.

  27. Aidan McGrath Says:

    I’m not a lawyer Cynthia so that nuance is lost on me. Calling for people to kill somebody and endorsing that call seem to me to be virtually the same thing. I doubt if that distinction was obvious to Cat Stevens either. I would echo some of the other posters opinions. He has been disingenuous about his views claimg. He never repudiates or apologises, but claims it was some kind of British irony, far too subtle for Americans to understand. What a combination of arrogance and insult.

  28. Aidan McGrath Says:

    When I said “others” I meant including your good self of course

  29. Simon Grennan Says:

    Dear Cynthia,

    Well done on an excellent piece…with one exception.

    “hectoring”? “inquisition” ? “grilling”? You strike me as someone who has never actually watched Robertson’s “Hypothetical” program all the way through. That’s not how the show works. Does Mr Islam look hectered to you? He has simply been given a hypothetical -thats how the show works – in which Y. Islam is only too willing, only too happy to offer his views on what he’d like to do to Rushdie.

    Please watch the clip again:

    Such a shame you clouded your message. Perhaps you couldn’t resist the temptation to off-load at least some of the blame to the Western white male (wheel in Robertson) and his institutions (wheel in the BBC). Our tendency to not treat Muslims as fully fledged ethical agents – as adults ethically responsible for their own behaviour and beliefs – is so dubious on so many levels.

    That aside – great article!

    Kind Regards

  30. Martin Boyd Says:

    Dan Wasil says: “For these actions, in full understanding of the celebrity impact his statements had, and have, Mr. Islam bears forever our condemnation.”

    Mr. Wasil, you could certainly never be accused of obtuseness, but your eternal condemnation of Mr. Islam sounds rather like a fatwa issued by Khomeini himself. I am not disputing that Mr. Islam callously supported a call for a man’s murder one time many decades ago, but millions of people in the world advocate capital punishment, with far more efficacious consequences than Mr. Islam’s position has had. Do all those people share your “eternal condemnation”?

    The truth is, I believe the indignation you express at Mr. Islam’s remarks comes from the same place as the remarks that you are condemning: moral outrage at someone who appears to express contempt for your most cherished values. It’s a fair reaction, and I cannot eternally condemn you for it… which is why I can’t condemn Mr. Islam either, however much I personally disagree with the opinion he expressed.

  31. Kevin Stoddard Says:

    All in all, this is an excellent work, Cynthia.

    VERY impressed with your succinct summary on Yusuf Islam’s remarks as being “…disingenuous, and carefully framed to avoid repudiating his previous, or perhaps current, position.” Indeed his remarks have been disingenuous; he has been quite careful to paper over the issue without evidence of any real contrition. Carsten’s posting of his various statements really adds nothing to the discussion, as what’s needed here is less posturing, and more of him saying simply “I was wrong.” Your suggestion for him to issue a full repudiation of a) religious violence, b) the Rushdie fatwa, and c) similar threats against others is exactly what is needed here, and we should settle for nothing less. As you said, “Peace is tough business, and often calls for more than the singing of songs.”

    Regarding his ambiguous and slippery statements, note his discussion with John Stewart (reported elsewhere, see link), where Stewart spoke with Stevens/Islam at the behest of Rushdie. Stewart reported that “We get into a whole conversation, and it becomes very clear to me that he is straddling two worlds in a very difficult way….” In other words, the phone call in which Stewart tried to clear the matter up only wound up muddying the waters, because Stevens/Islam’s heinous beliefs are not as misunderstood as Stewart had thought. That difficulty of “straddling two worlds” is very likely the main reason why Stevens/Islam seems disingenuous: he wants to polish up his image without retracting what he really believes; and since that’s not an easy highwire to walk, he ends up sounding unavoidably insincere.

    Martin Boyd’s comments are sloppy at best. I agree with Dan Wasil who rightly rejected what he calls Martin’s “deliberate obtuseness.” First, Cat’s/Yusuf’s statements were categorically NOT “tasteless jokes” despite 25+ years of downplaying them. His attempts to blow off these remarks as humour, or, as Aidan McGrath says “…some kind of British irony, far too subtle for Americans to understand” is actually “…a combination of arrogance and insult.” (Well said, Aidan.) The TV show Stevens/Islam appeared on was not some comedy or a talk show; it was a serious-themed public-affairs show where he was asked serious questions, as were all the attendees. In that and subsequent interviews, he was asked to clarify his comments, and given reasonable opportunity to retract them, but (importantly) chose not to. He did not disavow religious violence back then, and does not do so today. He repeated his comments to media outlets in the US, Ireland, and elsewhere, so this bit about him being shocked at the media firestorm (claimed in the 2000 Rolling Stone interview) is pure fiction. As noted by Rushdie, when confronted with what he had said, he “stood by his comments”. So enough with the glossing over of these statements; as Dan says “…Stevens personally contributed to the vile and dangerous call for the murder of an artist. There is no ambiguity. For these actions, in full understanding of the celebrity impact his statements had, and have, Mr. Islam bears forever our condemnation.”

    Second, I agree with Dan that there is no further reason for anybody to be clarifying anything to Martin, as enough has been cited already, and obviously he’s not interested in listening. Apparently to Martin’s thinking, Cat Stevens endorsing the murder of an author is not a serious enough matter to justify “picketing their concerts”. His belief that such action is neither “…warranted, or even fair” shows us that his view of “freedom of expression” actually means freedom-from-public-outcry. In other words, unless we keep quiet, maintain our silence, and allow Cat Stevens to say odious things — or alternatively, to get away with slippery non-apologies regarding his heinous 1989 remarks — then we aren’t really giving poor ol’ Cat his “freedom of expression”. And that, to Martin, is not “fair”. Apparently he doesn’t understand that freedom of expression is a two-way street: if he can say odious things, I can oppose odious things.

    I’ll tell you what’s not fair: it’s when Cat Stevens is asked, or given opportunity, to clarify or retract his remarks in 1989, refuses to do so — and then, 25+ years later, people give him the benefit of the doubt, despite him never even trying to retract his horrid words. So what’s fair? Simply this: for him to be held in contempt until such time as he makes an unconditional apology.

    John Stewart:

  32. Martin Boyd Says:

    Kevin, I’m afraid you’ve misrepresented my position in your synopsis of the debate, so I will clarify that position briefly: I am not criticizing or questioning anybody’s right to express disagreement, disapproval of Cat Stevens’ remarks. I myself disapprove of them. I think there is a subtle difference, however, between disapproving or rejecting somebody’s position and holding them in contempt unless they change that position. Nowhere do I suggest that we should “keep quiet” about our disapproval of positions we don’t agree with; I merely suggest that it is one thing to condemn a person’s opinion and another to condemn the person. Language which suggests that Stevens himself deserves “forever our condemnation” or should be “held in contempt” shifts the focus from the argument and turns into a personal attack. To me, freedom of expression means the right to express our opinions and to reject the opinions of others. It does not mean the right to coerce people into sharing our opinions. Of course I believe in everyone’s right to express disapproval of opinions we find abhorrent. But for freedom of expression to mean anything, I believe we must equally respect Stevens’ right to express (or not to express) his opinion. The choice to clarify, retract or apologize for his remarks should be a choice he makes freely, not as a result of coercion. There are many orthodox Muslims who believe Salman Rushdie owes them an apology for the opinion he expressed about their faith in “The Satanic Verses”. I don’t believe they have any right to expect such an apology; from this it logically follows that, unless I want to insist that my opinion is somehow more legitimate than theirs, I have no right to expect an apology from Stevens either.

  33. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Sorry for the late posting of this, Martin. You got lost in a field of spam.