Salman Rushdie demands apology from Yusuf Islam after fatwa

Not such a cool Cat after all! Yusuf Islam (aka pop legend Cat Stevens) claimed he’d been misunderstood over his support for the deadly fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Here the furious author demands: ‘I want an apology!’

The man who now calls himself Yusuf Islam has for decades preached a heartfelt and all-inclusive message of peace and love. 

As the singer-songwriter Cat Stevens, his mellifluous, uplifting songs, including Peace Train and Morning Has Broken, have sold in their millions.

By rock star standards he has lived a largely quiet life: no drugs, no sex scandals, no booze binges, no backstage debauchery with groupies (though there was, a long time ago, a brief liaison with a stripper known as Princess Cheyenne).

Instead, after converting to Islam in the 1970s, he has become a devoted man of God, establishing an Islamic charity and being awarded international peace prizes for his humanitarian work.

Perhaps the Booker Prize-winning Rushdie, one of the world’s most feted authors, has every right to feel aggrieved about what he calls Islam’s ‘wriggling’ response. The death sentence from the Ayatollah sent shock waves across Britain and around the world

And it is this image of a kindly, peace-loving sage that makes the support he has repeatedly appeared to express for a barbaric death sentence all the more shocking.

In 1989, on a late-night Granada TV programme, Islam said clearly, and without hesitation, that the celebrated novelist Salman Rushdie — accused of ‘blasphemy’ — deserved to die.

Yet recently he has been repeating his claim that he was misunderstood.

Last Sunday, Islam appeared on the long-running BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs, in which celebrities choose their eight favourite records and the luxury object they would take to an imaginary desert island.

The man who now calls himself Yusuf Islam has for decades preached a heartfelt and all-inclusive message of peace and love. As the singer-songwriter Cat Stevens, his mellifluous, uplifting songs, including Peace Train and Morning Has Broken, have sold in their millions

Asked by presenter Lauren Laverne if he supported the death sentence or ‘fatwa’ on Rushdie, handed out by Iran’s then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988 after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, Islam insisted he did not.

‘I was certainly not prepared or equipped to deal with sharp-toothed journalists,’ he told her. 

‘And the whole way in which the media spins stories, and so I was cleverly framed, I would say, by certain questions. I never actually ever supported the fatwa.’

But that’s not quite how others see it, to put it mildly.

This week I asked Sir Salman Rushdie himself what he made of Islam’s latest remarks.

He told me: ‘Cat Stevens most certainly was not “framed”. He made his comments on television. That’s a matter of record. A genuine apology would be a lot better than this wriggling.’

Perhaps the Booker Prize-winning Rushdie, one of the world’s most feted authors, has every right to feel aggrieved about what he calls Islam’s ‘wriggling’ response.

The death sentence from the Ayatollah sent shock waves across Britain and around the world. In Bolton, 7,000 attended a demonstration against Rushdie, culminating in a ritual book-burning. 

The novel was banned in several countries. Publishers and bookshops — including in Britain — were firebombed. Protests around the world saw scores of deaths.

The book’s Japanese translator was murdered and its Italian translator was shot.

An initial bounty of £2.2 million — raised to almost £3 million in 2016 — was placed on the writer’s head. He was forced to go into hiding, protected by Special Branch at a series of safe houses for more than ten years in a security operation that cost the taxpayer £11 million.

Far from apologising for these comments, Islam later said that it was an example of ‘British dry humour’. He claimed that the recording had been edited to make it look very serious, with laughs and ‘balanced arguments’ removed, while ‘the most sensational quotes’ were included

The then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, despite being no fan of Rushdie’s Left-leaning politics, staunchly defended him: ‘Whether or not we have any sympathy with Rushdie’s views is not the point.

‘We must react strongly to any state murder-hunt made against one of our citizens.’

The fatwa has never been lifted. Rushdie now lives at a secret location in New York City.

Unfortunately, despite her £400,000 a year from the BBC, Lauren Laverne in her Desert Island Discs interview failed to probe Islam on the life sentence Rushdie has endured as a result of the fatwa — she was anything but ‘sharp-toothed’.

She chose not to ask why he had repeatedly appeared to support the death sentence of a British author — or how he believed he had been ‘framed’. So what did Islam say or not say? Did he call for the violent death of a respected writer — or was it, as he claims, all a misunderstanding?

The controversy began in the late 1980s, when the fervour surrounding the fatwa was at its most poisonous and potent.

Soon after Rushdie published The Satanic Verses it was condemned as ‘blasphemous’ by Ayatollah Khomeini.

He and other Islamic fundamentalists were enraged by the book’s supposed mocking of the prophet Abraham and claims that Rushdie had allegedly cast doubt upon the divinity of the Koran.

In February 1989, Khomeini went on Iranian state radio to call for Rushdie’s murder — and for good measure his publishers’, too.

‘I am informing all brave Muslims of the world that the author of The Satanic Verses . . along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents, are condemned to death.

‘I call on all valiant Muslims, wherever they may be in the world, to kill them without delay . . . and whoever is killed in this cause will be a martyr, Allah willing.’

Days later, the man who had once called himself Cat Stevens gave a talk at Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University) in London. Asked about the fatwa, he said: ‘He [Rushdie] must be killed. The Koran carries the death sentence.

‘If someone defames the prophet, then he must die.’

Islam subsequently clarified that he was not condoning the killing of Rushdie but simply stating that, in the Koran, blasphemy is punishable by death.

Later, he said: ‘My only crime was, I suppose, in being honest. I stood up and expressed my belief and I am in no way apologising for it.’

He went on to outline these ‘beliefs’ in richer detail elsewhere.

A few months after the fatwa was declared, Islam appeared on a late-night Granada TV talk show, The Hypotheticals, presented by the respected human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, who had represented Rushdie in a blasphemy case brought in London by a group of Muslim barristers.

Robertson asked Islam to imagine he was in a restaurant and recognised Salman Rushdie at the next table. What might he do?

Muslim activists are seen beating an effigy of Salman Rushdie in New Delhi, India. An initial bounty of £2.2 million — raised to almost £3 million in 2016 — was placed on the writer’s head

Robertson asked: ‘You don’t think that this man deserves to die?’

Islam: ‘Yes, yes.’

Robertson: ‘You have a duty to be his executioner?’

Islam: ‘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.’

Robertson was visibly taken aback. He later questioned Islam about an imaginary protest at which an effigy of Rushdie was to be burned.

He asked: ‘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?’

Without a pause, Islam replied: ‘I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing.’

He went on to say that if Mr Rushdie turned up at his doorstep looking for help: ‘I might ring someone 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.’

Far from apologising for these comments, Islam later said that it was an example of ‘British dry humour’. He claimed that the recording had been edited to make it look very serious, with laughs and ‘balanced arguments’ removed, while ‘the most sensational quotes’ were included.

The novelist Fay Weldon also appeared on the programme. She said she was offended by Islam’s remarks, which it seemed to her incited violence.

This week I asked Mr Robertson, still a leading QC and now head of Doughty Street Chambers in London (where, among others, the barrister Amal Clooney practises), what he recalled of this extraordinary broadcast — and of Islam’s words.

Robertson told me: ‘At the time it was dramatic and seemed quite chilling — I don’t recall anyone thinking it was funny. I didn’t rehearse my questions but his answers surprised me so I came up with a scenario about the effigy to give him an opportunity to retract. He didn’t.

‘He may have been a bit disconcerted by the Hypotheticals format, which can cut to the truth better than a studio interview.

‘The programme showed that the fatwa was, and remains, an act of state terrorism.’

Islam abhors terrorism. He spoke out forcefully against the 9/11 attacks and has engaged in charity initiatives in areas blighted by Islamist fundamentalism. His philanthropic work is, he says, an echo of his faith. When he became a Muslim in the 1970s, he turned his back on secular music, saying it might ‘divert me from the true path’.

However, his back catalogue has made him a rich man and he has continued to release music — he was appearing on Desert Island Discs to promote his latest album.

Born in London (as Steven Georgiou, to a Greek Cypriot father and Swedish mother), he now lives in Dubai with his wife Fauzia Mubarak Ali, whom he married in 1979. They have four daughters and one son.

As well as Princess Cheyenne —real name Louise Wightman — Islam’s previous partners include the American singer Carly Simon and the actress Patti d’Arbanville.

Yusuf Islam, who was in London this week, did not want to talk to the Mail for this article.

He did, however, instruct his lawyers, to issue a statement: ‘Mr Islam stands by what he said on Desert Island Discs. Mr Islam . . . [believes that] people should abide by the law of the land, and not become involved in vigilantism of any kind. Mr Islam fully accepts that certain of the statements he made on Mr Robertson’s programme were naive. He sought to make light of certain questions by giving flippant answers which he has long since publicly made clear he regrets.

‘Regardless of the interpretation that was put on his statements in 1989, he does not support the fatwa, which he believes goes against the principles and system of law in Islam.’

Meanwhile, after all these years, Sir Salman Rushdie is still waiting for his apology.

In a TV interview in 2010, the writer said of Islam: ‘He’s not a good guy.

‘It may be that he once sang Peace Train. There was a point when I was a college student when I had a copy of [the album] Tea For The Tillerman. But he hasn’t been Cat Stevens for a long time.’

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