January 9

More on moderate Muslims

14  comments

I wasn’t going to touch this topic again but came across an interview with Yusuf Islam in last week’s New York Times Magazine that I just got around to reading.
Yusuf Islam was formerly known as Cat Stevens (Steven Demetre Georgiou) before he converted to Islam some thirty plus years ago. His album Cat Stevens – Greatest Hits was and is one of my all time favorite albums–I loved every song on it. I had it in LP and wore out the grooves, and how have it in CD. If you’ve never listened to Cat Stevens, look it up on Amazon and cat-stevens-aka-yusuf-islam-face-only.jpglisten to the the little bits of the songs they let you posted. (Somehow the Amazon link is screwed up on this album because I couldn’t get it to work, so I couldn’t create a link) He is a great talent. He gave up his musical career when he converted to Islam, and, in fact, didn’t pick up a guitar for years because he was uncertain as to the Islamic rules on music and didn’t want to make a mistake. He has recently released a new album.
He grew up in London, the son of middle class restaurant owners, and attended Catholic schools. According to his interview he makes more than $1.5 million per year on sales of his previous albums. So, English is his native language, he understands the West, and he is educated and affluent. He contributes much and works for many Islamic charities. He promotes peace and brotherhood. And he came out with a condemnation against the perpetrators of 9-11 and contributed aid and funds to 9-11 survivor charities. So one would think he would be the very model of a modern moderate Muslim.
But then there is the Salman Rushdie affair. When the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against Rushdie for what Khomeini considered blasphemy in Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, Yusuf Islam made some fairly inflammatory statements in condemnation of Rushdie and implied, if not outright said, that he would like to see Rushdie dead.
Then comes the interview in the Times. Yusuf talks about his conversion, his family, his new album, and then the interviewer asks:

For all your devotion to education and good deeds, government officials in various countries have tried to link you to extremist groups, including Hamas. What do you think of Hamas? [A militant Muslim organization listed as a terrorist group by the United States and many other countries]
That’s an extremely loaded question.
Can you try to answer it?
I have never supported a terrorist group or any group that did other than charity and good to humankind.
O.K., but many of us here in the States would like to see moderate Muslims make more of an effort to denounce the extremist fringe of the faith. Very few mainstream Muslims have publicly criticized their radical brethren.
If I am not an example of that, then tell me, Who is?
So would you say you have contempt for a terrorist group like Hamas?
I wouldn’t put those words in my mouth. I wouldn’t say anything on that issue. I’m here to talk about peace. I’m a man who does want peace for this world, and I don’t think you will achieve that by putting people into corners and asking them very, very difficult questions about very contentious issues.

Hmmm. The fact that he wouldn’t answer the question means one of two things: a) he does support Hamas or b) he fears reprisal if he speaks out against them. If it’s the former, then despite his moderate Muslim preachings, he supports a known terrorist organization that would seem to go against everything he believes; if it’s the latter, that speaks volumes to the control such terrorist groups have over the avowed moderate Muslims. In either case it’s an example of why so-called moderate Muslims may not be the peace seeking, just leave us alone, harmless folks that a lot of people think they are.
This is, of course, my opinion. Others may differ. I would be more than happy to hear opposing views, but I won’t respond to them because I simply don’t have the time. If anyone wants to comment on this–I’ll be happy to put the comments up as long as they are civil in tone. I don’t have a problem having my opinions savaged publicly as long as it’s done with at least a veneer of civility.
I’ve always wondered how people with political blogs get such heavy traffic–now I know.
Photo by Kevin Mazur for the New York Times


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  1. He’s scared to death Mike. Hamas will absolutely kill him – or his children if he speaks out against them. I’m sure they’ve told him so already.
    Low lifes like Hamas are not exclusive to Muslims – they exist in this country too in the form of neo Nazis and other lovely folks.
    I hate to say it but if I were Cat, I’d be just as evasive with my comments.

  2. Hey Mike,
    At least they didn’t ask him when he stopped beating his wife (how could they have passed that one up? – he’s a Muslim right?)
    Lets take religion out of the equation completely (if only) and imagine you are a public figure, say 20 years ago, being asked to comment on the situation in your country … in this case South Africa.
    Q. For all your devotion to education and good deeds, government officials in various countries have tried to link you to extremist groups, including the ANC. What do you think of the ANC? [A militant organization listed as a terrorist group by South Africa and many other countries](probably was for at least a time in the US?).
    A.That’s an extremely loaded question.
    It sure is!
    Put in that context the rest of his answers seem more than reasonable … sure you could say something like you support the ideals the ANC are fighting for, you support their right to defend themselves and the struggle/war they are involved in, but do not always support the methods they employ to do so? I guess you could say you despise the concept of apartheid and that state sponsored terrorism (whether recognized internationally or not) is still terrorism? (because if you don’t support the ANC you must surely support the ruling regime??)
    Don’t forget you are a well recognized public figure and like any such person you have undoubtedly had dealings with the press in the past where you have been misquoted, taken out of context and generally misrepresented to suit the agenda of others (this ever happened to you?).
    Does declining to specifically speak out against the ANC (but strongly denouncing terrorism generally) make you a supporter not just of the goals but the methods of the ANC? (Yes I can’t see how that follows either) If not, do we automatically assume the only other possibility is fear of reprisal – and if so couldn’t this fear extend to both sides of the conflict? – whatever you say will upset somebody!
    Of course it just ain’t that simple. If it was, it would mean that every time you have the opportunity to publicly denounce the behaviour of your fellow countrymen in Abu Ghraib, in Guantanamo Bay or “extreme rendition” centres around the globe … and fail or decline to do so … you are presumed to either support these practices, or you are too afraid of the perpetrators to speak out. Forget the faulty logic, I for one don’t believe that is true for a second.
    Cheers,
    Malcolm
    Hi Malcolm–
    Somehow I knew I was going to get dragged back into this quagmire. The only reason I’m responding is that I loved your riposte about why didn’t they ask him if he was still beating his wife, since, after all, he is Muslim. Brilliant. Hahahahahahahah. I wish I had thought of it.
    I see what you’re saying, but I believe your examples are faulty. There is no comparison between his situation and living in South Africa during Apartheid. He was asked about an admitted terrorist group headquartered halfway around the globe from where he lives, not a government sanctioned situation in his own country. Under your scenario, one would be afraid to answer with something good about the ANC because one might fear reprisal from the right-wing government under which one lives.  He is simply asked about a group that supposedly practices the same religion.  If he fears reprisal, that makes my point.
    He was asked because there has been a strong suspicion that he had at some point contributed funds to Hamas. I don’t know if anyone knows for sure whether he did or not, but I’m sure that’s what inspired the question. He was more than eager to denounce the perpetrators of 9-11, so he’s not afraid to speak out if he thinks fellow Muslims are in the wrong. My suspicion (and it’s only a suspicion because I don’ t know) is that Mr. Islam is of the Shiite persuasion as are the members of Hamas, whereas the Muslims carrying out 9-11 were Sunnis.
    He could have answered the questions in a much less wishy washy way. He’s a smart guy, he’s been around, he’s media savvy. I know that when I’m on live TV that I’ve got to be quick, but when I give a print interview–which this was–I can take all the time I want to formulate a reasoned response. The time I spend thinking doesn’t show up on the printed page.
    If I were in a vegetarian convention and someone asked me about that ridiculous low-carb diet that’s killing people, I wouldn’t mealy mouth around about it and say, well, you can do a low-carb diet and still be a vegetarian, and you really don’t have to cut out carbs, and I was way overboard with Protein Power. I would tell them like it is. He should have too. Unless…
    He could have said something along the lines of: I spend so much of my time trying to promote peace that I don’t keep up with all the various factions. If Hamas or any other group truly commits terroristic acts and harms innocent people, then I deplore them. But I’m so far removed from anything they do, that I can’t comment intelligently on their situation because I really don’t know.
    His attitude toward those questions feeds my admitted bias (but with good grounds, I believe) against letting our guard down against supposedly moderate Mulsims.  I mean, how much more peace loving can you be than the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, and yet he’s out screaming for Salman Rushdies’ scalp over something Rushdie wrote in a book of fiction.
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  3. Glad you liked it!
    You may well be right. Perhaps he did contribute funds to Hamas, perhaps he still does. Or not. Either way I don’t think you can draw too may conclusions from his answers and certainly not about so called moderate Muslims generally. If you could, then you would have to be fair and say the same thing applies to ‘moderate’ Christians … after all many, at least outwardly moderate Catholics contributed funds to the IRA. Now I don’t think you can draw a wider conclusion apart from the pernicious effect of religion generally, but one thing you are unlikely to have seen during the height of the Irish ‘troubles’ is high profile Catholics allowing themselves to be grilled in the same manner, and if they sat still long enough, being adversely judged if they had answered in similar fashion.
    Cheers,
    Malcolm
    Okay, I’ve got a question.  How did you get this response back before I posted your last comment?  I was in the middle of responding (though I had sworn I wouldn’t) when MD called me down to dinner.  I saved my partial response, ate, pulled up the blog software and here is this response.  I didn’t post the comment.  It wasn’t on the site.  How did you get it? Weird.
    I’m not Catholic, but I would hope that my friends who are would deplore the tactics of the IRA.  I’ll admit that I haven’t asked them specifically, but I would certainly hope they would.  I would also imagine that any ‘moderate’ Catholics who contributed to the IRA has ties to Ireland beyond simply being of the same religion.  I know that Mr. Islam is not a Palestinian.  As far as I know, he’s never lived there.  So it’s merely a religious connection like my ‘moderate’ Catholic friends have with the IRA.
    You are right.  I did not see any ‘high-profile Catholics being grilled’ on the Irish troubles, so I can’t speak to that.  Did they waffle?  Even the ones without an Irish connection?
    Best–
    MRE 

  4. Perhaps saving it posts it? The version I saw didn’t have the last paragraph. Perhaps the CIA, Mossad, ASIO and a whole host of other spooks are so riveted by our debate one of them couldn’t wait and posted it for you!
    I suppose having an ethnic as well as a religious connection makes it ever so slightly better … hmmm, not so sure about that.
    Cheers,
    Malcolm
    Maybe so.  I need to be careful.  The bizarre thing was that I couldn’t find it on my site.  When I went to the site (and I even checked it on another computer) it wasn’t there under comments.  It was only in my software sitting there quietly awaiting moderation.
    Strange.
    Maybe the Mossad, CIA, ASIO,  MI6, etc. all couldn’t wait to see your answer so they sent it on to you. 
    Not only did I not want to get drawn into the debate, I certainly didn’t want to get enmeshed in international intrigue, and look at me now. 
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  5. This equivocation reminds me of the responses of moderate Muslims to the Danish cartoon uproar. Some moderates condemned the death threats against the publishers, and condemned the rioting, but there was always a “but”–but freedom of speech does not give anyone the right to insult Islam, but the cartoonist was also wrong, blah blah blah. I guess their understanding of free speech is different from mine.
    Not only was there condemnation; people actually died over that fiasco. Fathers, brothers, uncles are not here any longer because people got pissed over a cartoon.

  6. Hi Michael,
    Thought you might be interested in this interview which was conducted while Yusuf was here in the US in December. This is not a sound-bite interview like Deborah Solomon’s interview. It is very interesting and it is much easier to understand where someone is coming from when you can listen to them, instead of reading an interview.
    I don’t like Deborah Solomon’s style of interview, as she just asks 10 questions, wants sound-bite answers, and generally seems to want her interviewees to look bad.
    Have you heard the new album? There are three songs played in the interview. It is a beautiful album.
    http://www.wfuv.org/wfuv/archive/index.html
    At the top where it says search archive, put in “Yusuf”. Click on Yusuf (in red) and the interview will start playing.
    btw, I’ve read that Yusuf is Sunni.
    Hi Missy–
    Listened to the interview and listened to the music.  The music was wonderful.  The interview was not what I would call penetrating.  The interviewer was extremely sympathetic, lobbed him softball questions, and never followed up.  For example, there are many Yusuf Islam quotes on record where he has denigrated Salman Rushdie for his portrayal of a fictional character in a book that Muslims think is blasphemous.  I’ve read the quotes, and they’re pretty vile.  This interviewer says to him as he is droning on about how much he loves peace something along the lines of: Peace loving guy that you are, it must really hurt you when people come out saying all these awful things about you like they did over the Salman Rushdie affair.  Yusuf responds: Yes, it was very hurtful.  Then it’s on to the next question.  Why not ask: What really happened?  At the time people were saying you wanted to see Rushdie killed.  If he answers that no, I didn’t feel that way.  Then she comes back with, here is a statement you made on Dec 15, 1988 where you said blah blah blah.  How do you reconcile that with what you’re telling me now?  Those kinds of probing questions.  The interviewer made much of the fact in her introduction to the interview that hers was the ONLY radio interview Yusuf had given during his last trip to the States.  It’s easy to see why.
    I’m delighted he’s back to performing because I love his stuff, including the three I heard on this interview.  But I still have my doubts as to what he believes at his real core.
    Best–
    MRE 

  7. This is exactly what Sam Harris refers to in his latest book, “Letter to a Christian Nation”. This book was written in response to the hostile reactions of Christians to his first book, “End of Faith”, after receiving death threat from Christians threatened by his message.
    Moderates of all religions, he contends, are simply not prepared to deal with the extremism of those willing to go all the way with the logical conclusion of the major faiths. Both Christianity and Islam consider themselves the only true faiths, and therefore, all other religions must be eradicated. Yusuf, whether threatened or not, can’t bring himself to offer some answer that deals with the extremism of his own faith, let alone Hamas. Saying that you are for peace and against violence doesn’t cover it as it is too general. Any agnostic or atheist can say the same thing. The specific problems with one’s own faith are not addressed.

  8. Hi Michael,
    Thanks for your answer to my post. I do see where you are coming from, but I think the interview was about the music more than politics. I don’t think the intention was to put Yusuf on the spot in that interview. It was more of a conversational type interview.
    We can’t look a this situation from just our point of view because no matter how much we want Yusuf to say what we want to hear, we have to put ourselves in his place and realize that he is in a very difficult position. No matter what he says in answer to those types of questions, someone or some group of people will not find his answer to their liking. I think that is why he has decided to refuse to answer those types of questions in interviews. He has been burned so many times in interviews that he has an “once bitten, twice shy” attitude now. At his core I think he is a great person with no hidden agenda.
    Here is a link to a video of Yusuf being interviewed on Canadian TV. They did a shorter spot on TV and put this uncut version on the web. The camera work is a bit shaky, and the lighting isn’t great, but it is an interesting interview.
    http://www.cbc.ca/thehour/video.php?id=1264
    He did some other radio shows. I think the interviewer on WFUV said it was the only one on a NYC radio station. He did a concert for around 400 invited guests (vip’s mostly- Chris Blackwell, for one, was there) which was broadcast with interview on a CA public radio station, and another radio interview in Philidelphia. Maybe others.
    Did you know that Yusuf played at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway last December. Alun Davies, his old friend and guitarist who was always seated next to Cat in concert, was there with him. Also, Alun came to New York with Yusuf. Wonderful to see those two back together again. Check out youtube for the videos.
    Take care,
    Missy
    Hi Missy–
    Thanks for the links.  I can see that you are a real fan, as am I, although probably not as big a fan as you.
    I understand your point and you’re probably right.  I have nothing against Yusuf–I think he’s probably doing wonderful things with his money and time.   My problem is with chosen religion that would make him fear to speak out without fear of reprisal.  I can totally understand his reluctance to be forthright, but when you’re a staunch supporter of a religion whose members actually kill people over a cartoon, then I think you would have to ask yourself if that religion truly is one that promotes peace.
    Best–
    MRE

  9. I should have included in my above post:
    “We can’t look at this situation from just our point of view because no matter how much we want Yusuf to say what we want to hear, AND NO MATTER HOW MUCH HE WOULD LIKE TO SAY IT, we have to put ourselves in his place and realize that he is in a very difficult position.” No matter what he says in answer to those types of questions, someone or some group of people will not find his answer to their liking. I think that is why he has decided to refuse to answer those types of questions in interviews. He has been burned so many times in interviews that he has an “once bitten, twice shy” attitude now. At his core I think he is a great person with no hidden agenda.
    I think he probably is a great person.  I do think his hidden agenda (if you could call it that) is to not get crossways with his religion irrespective of his own feelings.  Then, again, I think back to his pronouncements on Salman Rushdie…
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  10. “What do you think of Hamas”
    Well, I suppose he could have said that he supports their political aims, presuming that to be an independent Palestine with borders that are drawn up in a fair manner (fat chance of that happening) but not the violence that is used to further the political aims.
    Then he would have needed to go on to condemn violence committed by ALL countries involved in the Middle East, (including the Israelis, other Arab countries and Britain and the USA). One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.
    But maybe he didn’t trust the magazine’s editors to edit and distort his replies. Wouldn’t blame him, look at the bad press Robert Atkins got!
    Hi Neil–
    Your suggested answer is a good one.  I’m sure he suffers from the once-burned-twice-shy syndrome, so is reluctant to say much of anything for fear of being misquoted.  But I still harken back to his pronouncements on Rushdie…
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  11. Hi Michael,
    I really wish everyone could forgive and forget the Rushdie incident finally. Yusuf has paid his debt for that mess many times over. That was 18 long years ago and Yusuf has done so much good supporting children in Bosnia and other countries, not to mention the many other humanitarian causes he has supported with time and money. That the Rushdie incident has branded a good, kind man all these years is a horrible shame and really completely unfair. If everything we had ever said in our life was remembered forever and talked about on the internet none of us would come away unscathed.
    It looks as if Yusuf and his wife have brought up a great son. That should speak volumes for Yusuf’s character. Here’s a link. He has got a lovely voice, imho. Click the links to his website, also.
    Take care,
    Missy
    Hi Missy–
    I agree that Yusuf has comported himself well since the Rushdie incident.  But the Rushdie incident was not something thrust upon him; he, himself, made the vitriolic statements, which, in my opinion, provided a window into his true heart at the time.
    I’m willing to accept that he has grown since then, but it would be nice if he were to issue an apology.
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  12. Thanks, Michael.
    Did you check out the “myspace” link for Yusuf’s son yet? I think you might like his songs. There are three complete songs up on the site for play and I think they are quite good. The album comes out this month. I’d love to know what you think of the songs.
    Take care,
    Missy
    Hi Missy–
    I did check out his site.  I think he does have a nice voice, but I like his dad’s better.
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  13. “but I like his dad’s better.”
    Yes, I definitely do too. I love the passion in Cat’s voice, but I do think Yoriyos’ voice is quite good and very calming.
    I read somewhere that “Yoriyos” translates to “Georgiou” (Cat’s birth surname) but I have no idea whether this is true or not.
    Thanks for letting me know your opinion.
    Take care,
    Missy

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