The blogosphere is abuzz with people wondering why the singer once known as Cat Stevens, and later as Yusuf Islam, was invited to sing at Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” last weekend in Washington.
Now going by just Yusuf — his given name was Steven Demetre Georgiou — the singer is beloved for his poetic 1970s folk-rock songs; these songs include “Wild World,” “Father and Son” and “Peace Train,” which he sang at the rally, leading into a duet with rocker Ozzy Osbourne.
But the singer has, since 1989, possibly been best known for making some decidedly un-peaceful statements. He converted to Islam in 1977, and a dozen years later calmly spoke on a British television show of his desire to kill author Salman Rushdie. After the author published his novel “The Satanic Verses,” based in part on the prophet Muhammed’s life, Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an Islamic ruling calling for Rushdie’s murder.
According to a New York Times story on May 23,1989, Islam 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,” according to the 1989 Times story.
In an email this week to reporter Nick Cohen, Rushdie responded with the following statement:
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.
Rushdie went on to say:
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.
Right-leaning pundits, from Fox News’ Sean Hannity to Pajamas Media’s Roger L. Stone, this week seized on the singer’s appearance at the Stewart-Colbert rally. “Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert,” asked Simon on his blog. “Are They Pro-Islamofascist or Just Stupid?… why not invite Khalid Sheik Mohammed to perform? He actually took the head off Daniel Pearl. He didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk.”
Islam was refused entry to Israel in 2000 for allegedly having given funds to Hamas, and barred from the United States in 2004, when his name appeared on a terrorist watch list. He was allowed in without incident two years later, however, as he has been several times since.
After September 11, 2001, the singer publicly said:
I wish to express my heartfelt horror at the indiscriminate terrorist attacks committed against innocent people of the United States yesterday … it must be stated that no right-thinking follower of Islam could possibly condone such an action. The Qur’an equates the murder of one innocent person with the murder of the whole of humanity. We pray for the families of all those who lost their lives in this unthinkable act of violence as well as all those injured; I hope to reflect the feelings of all Muslims and people around the world whose sympathies go out to the victims of this sorrowful moment.
Islam was invited to headline at a peace conference held in Tel Aviv in 2008, but that invitation was rescinded by the organizer, the Peres Center for Peace.
The singer appears to now be trying to rehabilitate his image, with appearances on “The Colbert Report,” last year, and at the Stewart-Colbert rally in October.
A spokesperson for Comedy Central, the network on which Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and Colbert’s “The Colbert Report” are broadcast, said that its response to the question of whether they were aware of the singer’s controversial past is “no comment.”
Islam has never apologized or refuted his comments in which he said he would like to see Rushdie killed. Though the 1989 interview on British television is available online and clearly shows him calmly stating his opinion, Islam has said since that his remarks were taken out of context by the program’s editors, and that he was merely joking.
This story "Questions Surround Rally's Invitation to Cat Stevens a.k.a. Yusuf Islam" was written by Debra Nussbaum Cohen.