Last month The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame officially announced its 2014 inductees as Nirvana, Kiss, Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, Cat Stevens and Linda Ronstadt. Musically, whether all deserve this accolade, or others deserve it more, is a topic of another time. My current question is whether unapologetically calling for the death of another constitutes grounds for denying admission to the Hall.
The music of Cat Stevens remains embedded in my musical soul. His 1970 and ‘71 albums Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, bursting with songs such as Morning has Broken, Father and Son, Moonshadow, Wild World and Peace Train play like a soundtrack for my 60’s influenced late childhood and pre-teen years. And you can’t tell me that 1971’s black comedy, Harold and Maude, would be nearly as good without Cat’s influence. When Stevens converted to Islam in 1977, changed his name to Yusuf Islam in 1978 and auctioned all his guitars for charity in 1979, abandoning his musical career to devote himself to Islamic study and philanthropy, I remained faithful to his musical calls for peace, unity and happiness hoping he would sing again.
But when Islam responded one week after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his February 14, 1989 death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie for the publication of The Satanic Verses with a statement at London’s Kingston University that, “He (Rushdie) must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear – if someone defames the prophet, then he must die,” Stevens’ music lost its value and import. Two months later Islam affirmed his statement on the BBC Television program Hypotheticals in the following exchange with Queens Counsel Geoffrey Robertson:
Robertson: You don’t think that this man deserves to die?
Y. Islam: Who, Salman Rushdie?
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.
Well, so much for the peace train.
Subsequently, Islam sought to portray his comments as either failed attempts at “British Humor” or an inexperienced Muslim’s effort to explain the Koran’s consequences of defaming the Prophet. Never has he condemned the fatwa, accepted responsibility for his statements, or apologized in public or to Rushdie. Presumably, the topic is off limits for any interview as he’s not discussed it publicly since the 2000 Rolling Stones article in which he responded to a question that categorized the Rushdie fatwa incident as “rumor.”
I’m very sad that this seems to be the No. 1 question people want to discuss. I had nothing to do with the issue other than what the media created. I was innocently drawn into the whole controversy. So, after many years, I’m glad at least now that I have been given the opportunity to explain to the public and fans my side of the story in my own words. At a lecture, back in 1989, I was asked a question about blasphemy according to Islamic Law, I simply repeated the legal view according to my limited knowledge of the Scriptural texts, based directly on historical commentaries of the Qur’an. The next day the newspaper headlines read, “Cat Says, Kill Rushdie.” I was abhorred, but what could I do? I was a new Muslim. If you ask a Bible student to quote the legal punishment of a person who commits blasphemy in the Bible, he would be dishonest if he didn’t mention Leviticus 24:16.
The man brilliant enough to write the songs that made him a household name now claims to be a simpleton victimized by academic and media trickery? Yet if so, RS interviewer Andrew Dansby did Islam a disservice by not following up on the BBC comments.
Islam has eked back into public view since the Rolling Stone interview by releasing a couple of albums, returning to secular dress, and appearing on shows such as Charlie Rose and Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity Rally. Yet his selection as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee took me by surprise. Why now? Yes, he sold 60 million albums but numbers alone don’t equal Hall admission. Donnie and Marie sold 102 million; anyone want see them rock out with Bono and Anthony Kiedis? I suppose Islam created sufficient plausible deniability for Hall voters to disregard the Rushdie incident. Or maybe they just forgot. Because knowingly bestowing this highest honor on an unapologetic, hypocritical, murder condoning artist diminishes everyone associated with The Rock and Roll of Fame.