Cat Stevens: I never called for the death of Salman Rushdie

2017-08-16 12:12
Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens

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Yusuf/Cat Stevens

I never called for the death of Salman Rushdie; nor backed the Fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini – and still don’t. The book [Satanic Verses] 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 offence. The Bible is full of similar harsh laws if you’re looking for them. 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, after a harmless biographical lecture I gave to students in Kingston University in 1989, which unleashed the infamous headline above.

To indicate my actual stance about this matter before this front-page controversy erupted, it’s useful to quote a letter of complaint I sent to Viking, a subsidiary of Penguin Books, the publishers, on 8th October, 1989. This was after I had been sent a preview of the text of Satanic Verses:

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 to take a responsible decision.

Some years later I re-entered the studio to produce a spoken-word recording, about The Life of the Last Prophet, my first official album after seventeen years. During its launch at a press conference I said:

The Satanic Verses was Salman Rushdie’s view of the Prophet of Islam; “The Life of the Last Prophet” (s) is mine! Rushdie’s book, by his own confession, is based on fiction – mine is based on facts! Therefore, people are free; they now have a choice, so let them listen and see who they are more inclined to believe…

As can be seen from the above, my personal response was significantly different from the fables and myths which have been circulated by the media.

Sad too that no matter how many times I’ve repeatedly tried to explain my true position, journalists inevitably bring up this subject again and again; as if it was the only memorable thing I was reported to have done in my almost sixty years living on this planet (yawn).

I don’t want to lose the harmony of the universe

I see all things – burning, I hear men – shouting.

Now is the light of the world and the stars going out

Now does the blame for the disaster fall upon men

(O Caritas)


Because of imaginary scenarios set by courthouse TV interviewers, in 1989 I was drawn into making stupid and offensive jokes about Rushdie; however they were meant to lighten the moment and raise a smile – as good ol’ British sense of humor occasionally is known to do – unfortunately for me…it didn’t.

In the heat and brimstone of 1989 at the height of the Satanic Verses controversy, I was silly enough to accept appearing on a program called “Hypotheticals” which posed imaginary scenarios (if’s) by a well-versed barrister, Geoffrey Robertson QC. I foolishly made light of certain provocative questions. When asked what I’d do if Salman Rushdie entered a restaurant in which I was eating, I said, “I would probably call up Ayatollah Khomeini”; and, rather than go to a demonstration to burn an effigy of the author, I jokingly said would have preferred that it’d be the “real thing”.

Criticise me for my bad taste, in hindsight, I agree. But these comments were part of a well-known British national trait; a touch of dry humour on my part. Just watch British comedy programs like “Have I Got News For You” or “Extras”, they are full of occasionally grotesque and offensive jokes if you want them! On one particular broadcast of “Have I got News…” Ian Hislop, the editor of British satirical magazine Private Eye, personally called me “a Shi’ite” (doesn’t take too long to work out with a twist of an English accent what he meant by that).

Certainly I regret giving those sorts of responses now. However, it must be noted that the final edit of the program was made to look extremely serious; hardly any humour was left in and much was savagely cut out. Most of the Muslim participants in the program wrote in and complained about the narrow and selective use of their comments, surreptitiously selected out of the 3-hour long recording of the debate. But the edit was not in our hands. Balanced arguments were cut out and the most sensational quotes, preserved.

Providentially, they kept in one important response to a final question posed directly to me by Geoffrey Robertson QC. At the end of the debate he asked me to imagine if Salman Rushdie was taken to court in Britain and the Jury found him ‘not guilty’ of any crime – Blasphemy or otherwise – and dismissed the case, what I would do.

I clearly stated that I would have to accept the decision and fully abide by the law! And that was no joke. But people prefer to jump that bit and stick with the ‘effigy’ they have made up of me hanging around in their own minds!

Oh baby, baby it’s a Wild World

It’s hard to get by just upon a smile

(Wild World)

* This extract first appeared on Yusuf/Cat Stevens' website.

** In response to a News24 column calling for the boycott of Yusuf/Cat Stevens' concerts in South Africa, Cape Talk 567 AM Programme Manager, Tessa Van Staden, commented:

Cape Talk places a high premium on reliability, trustworthiness and compassion. Inclusion and balance are at the forefront of everything we do. As a talk station we offer a limited music offering on weekends as part of Solid Gold. Yusuf Cat Stevens’ music resonates with many of our listeners because it evokes feelings of nostalgia, among others. The artist has made headlines for many reasons over the years. We are aware of this particular issue, which Yusuf Cat Stevens openly deals with on his own website, along with many other questions that frequently come up about his life and ideas. We do not feel it appropriate to withdraw our support for the concert based on an allegation that the artist has openly engaged with, and has repeatedly refuted.

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