The PR visit to Australia by 1970s musician Yusuf Islam (AKA Cat Stevens) has received glowing media coverage, ahead of a series of concert dates at the end of the year.

“It’s only his third visit to Australia in a musical career that began in the 1960s,” enthused AAP.

“The Cat’s back: Cat Stevens will tour Australia later in the year,” The Sydney Morning Herald declared.

Some controversies were touched on. The Daily Telegraph noted, “Yusuf Islam, known to his fans around the world as Cat Stevens, faces an indefinite wait for an American visa because of President Donald Trump’s travel bans … He was denied entry to the US in 2004 but has visited there several times since then …”

But what Stevens has been doing since the 1970s was brushed over in the coverage. According to Fairfax:

“… in 1977, he famously renounced music, embraced Islam and adopted the name Yusuf Islam … Then came the Iranian revolution and his adopted religion was on its way to becoming one of the defining political narratives of our era. For nearly 20 years Stevens concentrated on relief work and education, in the process becoming a huge figure in the Muslim world. He candidly refers to it as his ‘zealous period’.”

According to AAP:

“… after contracting turberculosis in the late 1960s and then nearly drowning in the Pacific Ocean in 1975, Yusuf went on a spiritual journey, left music and focused on philanthropy. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks spurred him on to return to the world stage where he called for peace and spoke out against fanaticism.”

There’s a name missing from all of that fluff about “speaking out against fanaticism” and “relief work” — that of Salman Rushdie. Yusuf Islam joined in the Iranian-initiated demand that Rushdie be killed for his book, The Satanic Verses. According to Yusuf Islam in 1989, Salman Rushdie should have been murdered for his book. “He must be killed. The Koran makes it clear — if someone defames the prophet, then he must die,” Islam said in February that year. Participating in one of those then-fashionable Geoffrey Robertson Hypotheticals later that year, Islam said Rushdie should die and that he wanted Rushdie burnt to death.

[What’s a guy gotta do to get his visa cancelled around here?]

For those who have forgotten, there was nothing hypothetical about the threat to Rushdie. There were dozens of firebombings of bookstores carrying The Satanic Verses. People perished in riots. One would-be assassin of Rushdie blew himself up. The book’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered; Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was stabbed but survived; the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot but survived. Rushdie himself lived under heavy police protection for years.

Islam has never apologised for the comments and variously sought to claim he was joking, that he never actually said the words, and that people should “get over it”. “I was fool enough to try and be honest and tell people my position. As far as I’m concerned, this shouldn’t be the subject of my life.” That’s not a privilege that Rushdie, Igarashi, Carpiolo and others have (or had), unfortunately.

In 2015, Crikey revealed that US anti-abortionist Troy Newman, about to visit Australia at the behest of anti-choice group Right To Life, had called for the execution of doctors who performed abortions. In the ensuing controversy, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton cancelled Newman’s visa and he was denied entry, despite a subsequent effort to enter the country illegally.

Why, then, has Yusuf Islam been allowed into the country when his call for the murder of Salman Rushdie stands? On the same basis that Newman’s call, in 2000, for the execution of doctors was a fair basis for keeping someone out of Australia, Islam’s 1989 call for the murder of an author because of what he has written should keep him out.

Free speech? The protections of free speech don’t apply when you use speech to directly call for harm to be done to someone. That applied to Troy Newman. It should equally apply to Yusuf Islam. There is no “getting over” calling for someone to be murdered.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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