“I shall not cease from mental strife
nor shall my pen sleep in my hand
till Rushdie has a right to life
and books aren’t burned or banned”
The late, great Christopher Hitchens once said that religion makes morally normal people say and do disgusting and wicked things. As if on a one man crusade to prove this point conclusively, the artist formally known as Cat Stevens appeared on a BBC panel show in 1989 called Hypotheticals espousing his desire that a British citizen be murdered for the crime of blasphemy.
Stevens, having converted to the Islamic faith a decade previously and using the moniker Yusuf Islam, stated that he would happily inform the Ayatollah Khomeini of Rushdie’s whereabouts if he was aware of them. Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Shia Islam in Iran, had previously prescribed the death sentence for anybody involved in the publication of the novel The Satanic Verses and issued a Fatwa urging Muslims to murder Rushdie in retaliation for his blasphemy
When Geoffrey Robertson QC questioned Islam on whether he would attend an effigy burning of Salman Rushdie in protest, Islam stated that he would not be particularly moved to attend such a symbolic gesture but would prefer that the man himself was set alight. When Robertson asked whether Rushdie deserved to die for his apparently blasphemy, he answered with an unequivocal yes.
These dubious remarks were on the back of some similarly disturbing comments Islam had previously made in a talk at Kingston University in which he was questioned over the death sentence placed upon Salman Rushdie and replied:
“He must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear – if someone defames the prophet, then he must die.”
It seems many people are either unaware of Islam’s viciously stupid remarks or are falling over themselves to pretend it never happened. One of these people is author and broadcaster Scott Simon who recently interviewed Islam and subsequently described him as “one of the nicest folks we’ve ever had in-studio” and “a gentleman”. He also made the following comment via his Twitter account:
“To those who asked, Yusuf Islam has said he has never endorsed a Fatwa on Salman Rushdie or anyone and wouldn’t know how.”
Well, I suppose that clears it up then.
To state that he has never endorsed the Fatwa is demonstrably false but to claim that he wouldn’t know how to even if he wanted to, transports the whole statement into the realms of the utterly absurd. An endorsement is not some technically complex theological procedure; it is simply a declaration of support for a proposition or its premise.
On the off-chance that Mr Islam is being truthful and really is completely unaware of what kind of comments and behaviours would constitute an endorsement of Khomeini’s fatwa, I have compiled an easy to follow, step-by-step guide should he need it in future:
- Reiterate publicly that blasphemy carries the death penalty in Islam.
- State publicly that you believe an Indian born novelist in England deserves to be killed for exercising free speech.
- State publicly that you would contact the Ayatollah and hand this novelist over to him in the event that you knew of his whereabouts.
- State publicly that you would prefer that this novelist be burnt alive by a mob of screaming, frothing, outraged Muslims instead of them symbolically burning an effigy.
In other words, I would suggest that an effective way to illustrate an endorsement of the Ayatollahs invocation of blasphemy law against the citizen of a foreign country would be for Mr Islam to do exactly what he has already done. For someone who claims ignorance in matters of endorsement he nevertheless seems to make a pretty good job of it.
In defending himself, Yusuf Islam has since made a number of half-arsed, self-serving comments about this whole episode. In a Rolling Stone magazine he expressed his disappointment that the most common question he is asked is about the Salman Rushdie incident. Adopting a tone that implies that he himself is the aggrieved party in all this, he stated that he had “nothing to do with the issue” and “was innocently drawn into the whole controversy.” On his website, Mr Islam reiterates his position with the kind of clarity which is normally the reserve of duplicitous, double-talking taqiyya-mongers like Tariq Ramadan and Mohammed Ansar.
Apparently not quite understanding the correlation between what you say and what people think of you, Islam attempts to lay the blame of his image problems on the BBC show he made the comments on, rather than on the comments themselves. He accuses the program makers of “drawing him into making stupid and offensive jokes” and of editing the program to paint him in a negative light by preserving the most “sensational quotes.” Apparently these comments about a man who had been hounded into hiding under credible threats of death and had his Japanese translator murdered, were jokes. Perhaps it was something about Islam’s stony-faced, humourless delivery that sent these hilarious quips hurtling straight over the heads of all who heard them. Or perhaps it’s because they were not jokes at all but actually sinister and fascistic expressions of a man harbouring a religious hatred of free expression when it intrudes upon the hair-trigger sensitivities of reactionary Islamic bullies.
One person who certainly did not think these comments were intended as jokes, and who was not mislead by this supposed selective editing, was novelist Fay Weldon who was sitting in the same room as Islam when he made the remarks and immediately called for him to be arrested for inciting violence on national television.
Towards the end of the show he was asked what he would do if Rushdie were hypothetically hauled in front of a British jury who found him Not Guilty of any crime. His response is detailed in the FAQ section of his own website, and consists of the following overtly begrudging capitulation:
“I would have to accept the decision and fully abide by the law.”
Perhaps the purely theoretical nature of this courtroom scenario was part of the reason that Islam took it upon himself to write the following un-theoretical letter to Penguin Books in attempt to get a book he didn’t like banned.
“I wish to express my deepest outrage at the insensitivity of Penguin Books in Publishing Salman Rushdie’s book, Satanic Verses, This book is clearly blasphemous in nature and so deeply offensive to the Muslim Community I urge you to give the contents of this letter your most urgent attention and take a responsible decision.”
Penguin did not end up withdrawing the book and I sincerely hope they responded to Islam’s contemptible letter with an adequate two-word response.
Islam goes on to claim, on his website, that this letter of condemnation sent to Rushdie’s publisher is “significantly different” from the position attributed to him by the “heat-seeking media”. To my mind it simply reinforces the notion that he finds the concept of free expression so deeply outrageous that he will attempt to silence any usage of it that he disapproves of.
I can’t help noticing that there is nothing on Yusuf Islam’s website, or in any of his statements on this subject, that makes it even mildly reasonable to assume that he values free speech as a fundamental liberty and believes that all people should be free to express any opinions they damn well please without having to face the prospect of brutal murder in retaliation. That really would be a significantly different position from the one attributed to him.
There also appears to be nothing on his website condemning this unpardonable intimidation and victimisation of a man whose only crime was to create an award-winning work of fiction. Watched around the clock by armed guards, Rushdie spent a decade in hiding making coerced apologies, trying to get his own book banned and even pretending to convert to the Islamic faith, all in order that his life might be spared. This humiliating appeasement did approximately nothing to pacify Khomeini’s supporters.
Outraged Muslims firebombed bookstores, started riots, attempted assignations, kidnapped people and generally engaged in inexcusable and thuggish behaviour which resulted in the deaths of at least 57 people as well as over 200 injuries. These Islamic hordes kicked up an almighty international shit-storm in response to a book, and displayed the kind of unbridled outrage they routinely forget to display when their Muslim brothers kidnap schoolgirls, behead journalists, bury families alive, hang homosexuals and continually behave with all the decorum of an army of ruthlessly ambitious sadists. Likewise, Mr Islam found no compulsion to “express his deepest outrage at the insensitivity” of Muslims using large-scale violence to silence artistic expression and to terrorise people guilty of no crime.
Perhaps interviewers such as Scott Simon owe it to their audience to educate themselves on the people they invite onto their shows, to ask awkward questions, to demand answers to these questions and to not tweet tactless, facile excuses on behalf of their guests.
I would also suggest that if Mr Islam wants to put this whole episode behind him, as he seems keen to, then he should perhaps offer a sincere apology to the many victims of this menacing conduct for publicly acknowledging the criminality of blasphemy and endorsing the religious punishment for it, both of which led to these obscene acts of murder and intimidation. He should apologise to Rushdie’s family who were relocated 57 times in the first few months of the Fatwa – a regrettable necessity that effectively ended his marriage. He should apologise to Rushdie himself for his irresponsible, callous and moronic remarks towards him and he should apologise for his objection to the right of others to benefit from the same artistic freedom that he himself has made a career from.
Perhaps there is a case to be made that he should also apologise to me. Every time I listen to Wild World, or Father and Son or Tea for the Tillerman, I have to try to forget that the artist who wrote and performed these phenomenally sentimental songs is in fact a fascist arsehole with a thinly veiled contempt for free speech. Some of my all-time favourite tunes have been tainted by the stench of a religious ideology that views free expression as a crime punishable by death and by a man who endorses that sentiment. As an artist he has written some amazing pieces of music and has a unique singing voice that infuses his songs with emotion and melancholy. I suppose it would be fair to say that I am a fan of Cat Stevens.
Yusuf Islam, however, can go fuck himself.