Singer-songwriter Yusuf Cat Stevens said he was “cleverly framed” by “shark-toothed journalists” to look like a supporter of the Iranian fatwa that forced the novelist Sir Salman Rushdie into hiding in 1989.
Sir Salman, author of Booker Prize winner Midnight’s Children, lived in hiding for nearly a decade after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa – a death sentence – on the writer over his book The Satanic Verses.
Stevens, who converted to Islam in 1977 after a near-death experience and changed his name to Yusuf Islam, was accused of backing the fatwa – although he vehemently denied this was true at the time.
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Speaking on BBC’s Radio 4 Desert Islands Discs, he said: “I was certainly not prepared or equipped to deal with shark-toothed journalists and the whole way in which the media spins stories.
“I was cleverly framed, I would say, by certain questions, where I couldn’t for instance rewrite the ten commandments. You can’t expect me to do that.
“At the same time I never actually ever supported the fatwa. I even wrote a whole press statement which, very early on, which the press ignored – completely ignored.
“They went for the one which was written by the journalist who originally wrote the story. And so I had to live through that.”
A culture war
The Satanic Verses sparked a culture war in Britain between those in the Muslim community who considered it blasphemous – due to a storyline in the novel rewriting of the life of the prophet Muhammad – and called for the novel to be banned, and those defending it as an expression of freedom of speech
While Rushdie was given security, there have been several assassination attempts made on his translators, including Hitoshi Igarashi, his Japanese translator, who was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991.
Despite a conciliatory statement made by Iran in 1998, and Rushdie’s declaration that he would no longer live in hiding, the Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently, since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died.
The singer went on a hiatus from music around 1979 to devote himself to religion, later returning to music in 2006 with the album An Other Cup, billing himself as Yusuf/Cat Stevens.
He spoke about the difficulty to follow his spiritual path and become a high profile convert, which wasn’t always well received by the public.
Stevens said: “There was the Muslim world which was absolutely infatuated with me because it had loved the idea this pop star has become a Muslim.
“But on the other side there were people who said, ‘He’s a bit of a traitor, isn’t he? He’s turned Turk.’ And that I had to deal with.
“That was very difficult because at one point I was an icon of the majority and now I am part of the minority who are looked down upon and certainly, to a large extent, misunderstood.”
In 2000, the singer cited his faith when he joined the campaign to preserve Section 28, the since-repealed ban on the so-called “promotion” of homosexuality in British schools. He has never apologised for his role in the campaign.
Desert Island Discs is on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 4 on Sunday at 11am.
Additional reporting by Press Association