Jon Stewart and the resurrection of Yusuf Islam

This past weekend during Jon Stewart’s “Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” people on both sides of the political spectrum realized something about the Comedy Central comedian: He is all-powerful.

I have come to this conclusion based on Stewart’s decision to include Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, in his rally. 

Yusuf ‘s appearance, of course, set off a firestorm amongst conservatives. Critics of the rally could not believe that Stewart would include a “Muslim extremist” in his rally.

These accusations all center on a comment that Yusuf made over 20 years ago. In 1988, British author Salmon Rushdie wrote a novel titled, “the Satanic Verses,” which caused immediate controversy in the Islamic world because of what was perceived as a disrespectful depiction of Prophet Muhammad. 

At the time of the book’s publication, the late spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called the book “blasphemous against Islam.” Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the execution of Rushdie. A fatwa is basically a religious opinion concerning Islamic law, which is made by an Islamic ruler. 

At this point in time, our friend Cat Stevens had already been a Muslim convert for more than 10 years. Stevens became Yusuf Islam in 1977 after his conversion.

In 1989 on a British television program, which proposed imaginary scenarios by a well-versed lawyer, the lawyer-host had asked Yusuf “what he would do if Salmon Rushdie walked into the restaurant that he was eating at?”

Yusuf responded that he “would probably call up Ayatollah Khomeini … and rather than go to a demonstration to burn an effigy of the author, I would have preferred that it’d be the real thing.” 

For over twenty years these comments have followed Yusuf in an attempt to illegitimatize the man. Yusuf over the years has repeatedly stated that his comments were taken out of context as they were made on a British comedy show. And if you know anything about the British, it is that they have a dry sense of humor.

Nonetheless, the comments have not stopped the legendary musician from aspiring to work in the realm of social justice. Since his conversion in 1977, Yusuf has used his accumulated wealth and ongoing earnings from his music career for philanthropic and educational causes in the Muslim community of London and elsewhere. 

He has set up primary and secondary schools in London, as well as heading numerous charity causes which assist thousands of famine victims and orphans in Africa, Indonesia, the Balkans and Iraq.

Stewart has confirmed that after the rally, Salmon Rushdie called him in order to air his grievances about introducing a man that once “made a threat against his life.” Stewart was sorry that Rushdie felt disturbed but refused to apologize.

Actions speak louder than words. For all of the heartache that the 1989 comment caused, Yusuf ‘s actions since then should outweigh his words.

In 2004, Yusuf was denied entry into the United States. He was en route from London to Washington for a promotional tour. Supposedly his name was on a no-fly-list and Yusuf was redirected back to London.

Yusuf believed that his inclusion on the watch list might have simply been an error in mistaken identification. Nonetheless, the damage was already done. Three years after 9/11, the US Transportation Security Association made an example out of a man named Yusuf Islam. The symbolic nature of this event cannot be underestimated.

Now after 20 years of controversy and goodwill, Yusuf Islam found himself next to Jon Stewart. In a year where Qur’ans were threatened to be burned and mosques were deemed necessary to relocate, Yusuf sang his hit song “Peace Train” with the US capitol building in the background and American flags waving in the Washington D.C. breeze.

Stewart legitimized Yusuf in a manner in which no head of state from any part of the world could ever do.

Hanif Zarrabi is a history graduate student and columnist for the Daily 49er.

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