Cat Stevens Incident: Pulling the Rug Out From Under Moderate Muslims
I met Yusuf Islam, the former singer Cat Stevens, in the early 1990s when he attended an Islamic conference in San Jose, Calif. I was then the editor of a Muslim magazine and interviewed him about his views of the Muslim world.
Among other things, we talked about his alleged support of the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa (religious ruling) of death against Salman Rushdie for his novel “The Satanic Verses.” The singer-turned-teacher, who converted to Islam in 1978 and founded a Muslim school in London in 1983, said he was frustrated that the media quoted him only partially on the subject. He told me that although he advocated a ban on a book he considered blasphemous, he also reminded Muslims to keep within the limits of the law of the country in which they lived.
He expressed regret at the violence that erupted in several Muslim countries and cost many lives following the publication of the book. Under no circumstance, he said, were people to take law into their own hands. In other words, while he supported the seriousness of the fatwa in principle as a warning against anyone maligning the prophet of Islam, he did not wish for Rushdie’s head.
I recall this meeting with much sorrow, because my government has decided that this soft-spoken man has suddenly become a threat to America, so much so that he cannot be allowed entry into the United States.
How did the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) arrive at this conclusion?
Islam, after all, had visited New York in May of this year to promote a DVD of his 1976 MajiKat tour and launch his charity organization called Small Kindness. In just four months, the singer had apparently metamorphosed into a threat because of his alleged past support of certain terrorist organizations.
A provision in the USA Patriot Act states that anyone who uses his position of prominence to endorse terrorism or terrorist organizations may not enter the United States. This was what a DHS spokesman was referring to when he said that Islam was denied admission to the United States “on national security grounds.”
Islam has denied link to any organization such as Hamas. He states that he is an unabashed supporter of Palestinian rights and has made humanitarian contributions to charities that he felt were building schools and orphanages in the Occupied Territories. But he is also on the record stating that he has never knowingly supported any terrorist groups, past, present or future. His Web site (http://www.yusufislam.org.UK) gives a summary of his unequivocal opposition to terrorism, and includes a condemnation of the recent massacre of teachers and students at the school in Beslan, Russia.
Just last month a similar fate befell a Muslim scholar widely regarded as a progressive thinker. Author of “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam” (Oxford University Press, 2003) the Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan was scheduled to teach at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for International Peace Studies this fall. At the last minute, the DHS revoked his visa, under the same provision used to bar Islam from entering the United States.
Ramadan, too, has denied any link to terrorist organizations and has challenged his detractors, including the DHS, to prove their case. Notre Dame officials and prominent American scholars have vehemently protested the government’s decision. Members of a Jewish student group at the Notre Dame Law School have joined in the protest.
Regarding the charge that he is the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ramadan has asked that he be judged on his own life, not his genealogy.
Time and again, sane voices remind us that to defeat the terrorism unleashed by groups like Al Qaeda, America must build the trust of moderate Muslims around the world. The recently released 9/11 Commission Report states as much (p. 375-376): “The small percentage of Muslims who are fully committed to Usama Bin Ladin’s version of Islam are impervious to persuasion. It is among the large majority of Arabs and Muslims that we must encourage reform, freedom, democracy, and opportunity ....” The report recommends that the United States “offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors ... If we heed the view of thoughtful leaders in the Arab and Muslim world, a moderate consensus can be found.”
How can Muslims help reach a “moderate consensus” if America continues to arbitrarily pull the rug from under their feet? How can we fight the real terrorists if Muslim teachers and scholars who preach pluralism and peace continue to be demonized before the whole world?
It is activists and scholars like Yusuf Islam and Tariq Ramadan, both of whom denounced the Muslim extremists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and demanded that their leaders be brought to justice, that America should court in order to marginalize groups like Al Qaeda. Instead, we American Muslims are left wondering if our government is really serious, or even interested, in building our trust.
PNS contributor Hasan Zillur Rahim writes on Islamic issues and has been an editor of Iqra, a national Islamic magazine. Originally published 9-23-2004 on Pacifica New Service and reprinted here with permission of the author.