In 1977, singer [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Cat Stevens[/lastfm] converted to Islam and left the music business. For 12 years, his music continued to get a great deal of airplay and his back catalog sold well — until the spring of 1989. But before we can tell you the story of that spring, we have to tell you another one.
In 1989, Indian-born British novelist Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, which was interpreted by many Muslims as disrespectful to the prophet Mohammed. The book was banned in many predominantly Muslim countries, but the leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, went further. He declared a fatwa (a legal opinion under Islamic law) sentencing Rushdie to death for blasphemy, and it became the religious duty of Muslims to see that Rushdie was killed. The ensuing controversy was so severe that the UK and Iran broke diplomatic relations over it.
While speaking at a British university in February 1989, Stevens, now known as [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Yusuf Islam[/lastfm], was asked about the controversy. When he stated that the proper punishment for blasphemy was indeed death, the remark was interpreted as favoring the death of Rushdie. And by March, the outcry from the West was loud — radio stations stopped playing Cat Stevens records and some fans destroyed their copies. The group [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]10,000 Maniacs[/lastfm] had planned to put Stevens’ “Peace Train” on their forthcoming album, but decided against it.
Today, Yusuf claims he did not personally advocate the murder of Salman Rushdie. At the time, Rushdie believed he did, and as recently as last year, when Yusuf performed at the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity,” Rushdie still does. And every once in a while, a radio station plays an old Cat Stevens tune and a listener calls up and wants to know why.
Here’s Yusuf performing “Peace Train” in 2006.