The Worst of Cat Stevens
by Stephen Schwartz
EARLIER THIS WEEK, I commented that, as Yusuf Islam, the singer Cat Stevens has held to an extreme Islamic fundamentalist position regarding music. I wrote, "Wahhabism, the state religion in Saudi Arabia, and the inspirer of al Qaeda, is especially known for its hatred of music. In Wahhabi theology, all music except for drum accompaniment to religious chanting is haram, or forbidden. . . . Yusuf Islam has demonstrated his sympathy for this posture on several occasions. . . . In 1997, he released an album titled I Have No Cannons That Roar, dedicated, he said, to the cause of the Bosnian Muslims. In an interview with Stephen Kinzer, appearing in the New York Times on December 8, 1997, he commented on the project, 'I've . . . used a very conservative approach. You only hear my own voice, a slight choral accompaniment and drums. Let's say that's the safest option according to certain Islamic schools of thought.'"
On this topic, a correspondent sent me a fascinating article from the Toronto Globe and Mail of August 7, 2000, by a Canadian Muslim woman named Rahat Kurd, under the title, "Why Cat Stevens had it all wrong: The former pop star should never have turned me off to the beauty of music in the name of Islam." Kurd's article included the following recollection of an encounter with Stevens: "I read about how the views of this singer-turned-Islamic-activist have 'developed,' and that 'his hard line on music has softened' . . . That day, he sang a spare yet evocative song he'd recently written for children, called 'A is for Allah.' It prompted some of us to clap our hands in appreciation, but he objected. The patrician distaste in his tone was unmistakable: 'We don't . . . clap . . . for Muslims,' said the white, male British pop star." (Applause is also forbidden by Wahhabis.)
We were . . . children. Few of us had ever imagined picking up a guitar and strumming a few chords, only to see what it was like, and now, few of us ever would. Yusuf Islam's views may have been just one instance of a new wave of Islamic puritanism across a rapidly changing world. Still, at the time, we understood little of how politics or social change affected us; the singer of the lovely 'Peace Train' had a vivid presence, and his words, a direct impact. Music--and the permissive lifestyle that accompanied it, at least in Cat Stevens's experience--would surely lead us away from the remembrance of God. As a result, the place of music in our lives plunged in esteem, becoming negligible. Studying music and the arts became suspect; becoming a musician, out of the question.
However, in my own further review of the contribution of Yusuf Islam, the supposed peace activist, to solidarity with Bosnian Muslims, I rediscovered a really shocking item. When I listened to the album I Have No Cannons That Roar I found that among Yusuf Islam's own rather primitive "children are dying" stuff--and the album's somewhat unattractive renditions of lovely Sufi poems by my friend Dzemaludin Latic--there is a song in the Arab style with the following verse:
When the Muslims make their wish
This song ends with the lines:
When the world blasts away
The extraordinary thing about this is that jihad vocabulary was never used by the Bosnian soldiers during the war there. Dzemo Latic himself wrote a poem comparing Bosnia to a battle fought by Muhammad, but did not use the term jihad. In my book, The Two Faces of Islam, I contrast the legitimate, self-defensive jihad (i.e. military struggle) of the Bosnians, with the terrorist "jihad" of the Wahhabis. But the Bosnians have never incited local Muslims to go off to perform jihad; that was a habit only among bin Ladenite Arabs who injected themselves into the Bosnian war, and who had no real effect on the struggle except to make things more difficult for the Bosnians. That is one of the main reasons Bosnians do not show up in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other theatres of conflict chosen by the Wahhabi warriors.
The more we know about Cat Stevens, i.e. Yusuf Islam, the more the decision to deport him becomes justified.