Covering Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam: How peaceful is his 'Peace Train'?

Cat Stevens soothed ears and gained fans with his boyish grin, light humor and lyrical songs like Moonshadow, Wild World and Peace Train. At least until 1977, when he converted, renamed himself Yusuf Islam and dropped out of popular music.

But over the last decade, he's eased back into performance and has just announced a new musical tour, "Peace Train ... Late Again," in North America and Europe. The coverage thus far is not quite a train wreck, but it does miss a chance to examine the freight: the intolerance that once prodded him to recommend Salman Rushdie's death.

Most news media have seemed to rely on the Associated Press story, which deals mostly with Stevens' "unhurried music career." They note his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this spring, as well as his upcoming blues album, his first studio album in five years.

They tend to sidetrack Cat's Islam-carnation, preferring to play up his witty, cheery ballads. The BBC notes that he even popularized a "Christian hymn," Morning Has Broken.

Among the few stories that even hint at controversy is the Washington Post's version of the AP story:

Despite the political climate, with the U.S. fighting Islamic State militants in the Middle East, Stevens said he didn’t expect his faith to be an issue when he goes on the road in this country.

“I’m afraid that a lot of things that people believe about Islam are totally different from the religion that most of us recognize,” he said. “I was really fortunate that I got to know Islam before it became a headline.”

But what about the headlines he made himself? Remember that flap over Salman Rushdie? Some readers do. On reading the Post, one, who called herself "Gloria2," posted a link to a 1989 article in the New York Times:

The musician known as Cat Stevens said in a British television program to be broadcast next week that rather than go to a demonstration to burn an effigy of the author Salman Rushdie, ''I would have hoped that it'd be the real thing.''

The singer, who adopted the name Yusuf Islam when he converted to Islam, made the remark during a panel discussion of British reactions to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's call for Mr. Rushdie to be killed for allegedly blaspheming Islam in his best-selling novel ''The Satanic Verses.'' He also 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.

One would think the AP and other outlets would have at least the same access to news archives that "Gloria2" has. And they certainly didn't downplay the issue for lack of space. Not when the ArtsBeat blog of the New York Times gave it one of the five paragraphs in its story on the new "Peace Train" tour.

Several times over the years, Yusuf has tried to deny endorsing Khomeini's fatwa. “We were just poles apart,” he said of Rushdie in a 2006 interview. “We disagreed. But I never said such a thing.” Apparently he thought no one would see the video clip linked in the 1989 Times post.

The Times quotes Stevens backpedaling: "He later distanced himself from those comments, saying that he was merely answering questions about Islamic law." Well, that's not evident in the clip, and even if so, it doesn't clarify. If that's how he understands Islamic law -- and submission is the translation of the word "Islam" -- does that mean he advocates violence against a perceived apostate or heretic?  

As the AP and Washington Post indicate, reporters are already asking such things, however hesitantly. After all, people in the Middle East -- Christians, Yazidis, even Shiite Muslims -- are getting shot or beheaded for disagreeing with prevailing orthodoxy.

OK, Cat has already indicated that he wouldn't personally do such things. But if he learned of another deviant from the faith, how would he react? And as a public Muslim, so to speak, what would he recommend to his brothers in the ummah?

"It mattered then and it matters now," Michael Gordon-Smith wrote in 2010 for The Drum TV in Australia. "Yusuf supported killing a man because someone took offence at what he had written."

Gordon-Smith continues:

For me, it remains the most important thing he ever did. Unless he revisits the issue and finds room for difference, in my mind he’s forever defined by the choice he made in those weeks in 1989. The only message I hear from him is the echo of Khomeini’s threat not just to Salman Rushdie but to every free thinker in the world: If you speak your mind we may kill you.

Now, Cat/Yusuf has a full right to change his mind. He may have had second thoughts about Rushdie and others like him. He may have learned a more tolerant, positive form of the faith.

He does confess a desire to benefit Muslims with his musical gift. “The Muslim world now is artless,” he said in the 2006 interview. “I wanted to show that there is creativity. It’s not grim.”

It's a wonderful aspiration. But just as freight cars follow the rest of a train, Cat's public statements will follow his "Peace Train" tour. Eventually, he'll either have to own that freight or offload it. And he'll have plenty of chances to do one or the other. I doubt I'm the only journalist who wants to know.

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