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The 'Rushdie Affair': Religion, Salman Rushdie, Cat Stevens and the art of offence

The creative arts are an unusual form. Music, visual art and literature all derive from the mind of an individual or collective, creating works that are very much in the eye of the beholder. It is this intrinsic facet that makes the arts nothing if not subjective. One can listen to any song, read any book and gaze at any piece of art, and find that we have a completely different account of the work to the person standing immediately next to us.

This is its brilliance. There are an innumerable amount of points humans can take from a piece of art. Different themes might mean other things depending on life experience. Some notes might hit differently, and the painting of a Habsburg monarch may draw as much disgust as it does fascination. Quickly, cast your mind back to the many instances where you’ve bickered with friends over opinions on music, art or literature. 

Typically, this bickering is of the very futile sort, a game of brief one-upmanship where you’re only really looking to assert dominance over your friends – or vice versa. Often, particularly if we’re under the influence of one substance or other, these might snowball into somewhat inflated discussions that extend to a tacit level that no one would have expected at the outset.

These long and drawn out verbal duels often reach a climax that ends up concerned with a completely different topic to the one the conversation was originally concentrated on. At the conclusion, you find that you and your friend(s) deep bond is strengthened even more by this tangental clash of opinions. However, there have been many occasions where pieces of artwork draw ire, and the offence caused is so severe that the response by the offended doesn’t equate to the ‘offence’. In the modern era, it has often been musicians that have caused the greatest indignation, given the stark contrast in their ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ outlook to that of the status quo. Take The Beatles and John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” controversy, for example. It is safe to say that when the band formed in 1960, none of their fresh-faced members would have expected to come into direct contact with the dastardly KKK.

Musicians causing shock horror is a well-established trope that needs no honest discussion. However, the point is that art has an innate ability to be offensive due to its subjectivity, giving it an internal contradiction that is unmatched, even by class-A sport.

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Back in 1988, there was one example of this situation in which things got so out of hand that the world is still talking about it today.

Yes, this rage came after the release of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Although it won awards upon release, such as that year’s Whitbread Prize, the magical realist text was denounced as blasphemous and mocking of the Islamic faith by many parts of the Muslim world. 

I want to save discussion of the reasons why, as that is not our place. Instead, I want to show just how severe a reaction art can stoke. The book was banned in Rushdie’s native India as it was regarded as hate speech towards Muslims. This was not the most serious of it, though. On February 14th, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, the then-Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie.

The order resulted in several failed assassination attempts on Rushdie, who was placed under police protection by the UK government. Furthermore, attacks were carried out on people connected to the author, and tragically, the Japanese translator of the book, Hitoshi Igarashi, was stabbed to death in his office by an unknown assailant. We could go on extensively about the global socio-political fallout from the book’s release, as it drew comment from people who hailed from every walk of life, and who really had no place to comment. Nonetheless, one of the most significant and extraordinary convergences it brought was that the man formerly known to audiences as Cat Stevens, who had gone by the name of Yusuf Islam since 1977, also seemed to call for the death of Salman Rushdie.

At a 1989 address he gave to students at Kingston University when asked about the ‘Rushdie Affair’, Islam was quoted as saying: “He must be killed. The Qur’an makes it clear – if someone defames the prophet, then he must die.” Typically, the newspapers quickly got a hold of the comments, and Islam found himself embroiled in what can only be described as a mess.

Islam also appeared on the Australian TV show Geoffrey Robertson’s Hypotheticals, where he was part of the panel of notable guests discussing the event. When asked by the moderator Geoffrey Robertson if hypothetically he’d attend a demonstration where the crowd were burning an effigy of Rushdie, Islam replied: “I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing”.

Whether he meant it as sarcastic or not, the rage his comments caused was incredible. This was so extensive that the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens would never fully recover from his words that mirrored Khomeini’s Fatwa. This period now seems to overshadow everything Yusuf Islam has done since, and there has been no interview he has given since then that has not briefly turned to the ‘Rushdie Affair’.

Cat Stevens became embroiled in the argument. (Credit: Protest Photos)

In the years after the media fallout, he would go only by Yusuf, in an attempt to distance himself from his past comments. On his personal spiritual website, he proclaimed: “I never called for the death of Salman Rushdie; nor backed the Fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini—and still don’t. The book itself destroyed the harmony between peoples and created an unnecessary international crisis.” 

Furthermore, when appearing on BBC’s Desert Island Discs in October 2020, Yusuf 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 10 Commandments. You can’t expect me to do that.”

He continued: “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.”

We could also spend all day cross-referencing Yusuf’s statements and discuss all of the contradictions they hold, but that is not the point. The point is that this story is a strange outlier in the world of art. Never before, and up until the present, has a piece of work caused such outrage on a national and international scale.

More significant than that is the way that it brought two respected artists from widely different backgrounds into direct conflict. Speaking retrospectively of the event in 2010, Rushdie called Yusuf “not a good guy” and that: “It may be that he once sang ‘Peace Train’… but he hasn’t been Cat Stevens for a long time now, he’s a different guy now.”

The pair have been involved in a media, internet and copyright spat ever since the book’s release, with Rushdie having no love lost for the man that once “wanted to kill” him.

This is the most severe reaction the world has seen with regards to an artist since John Lennon’s comments in 1966 about The Beatles being more famous than Jesus. Ultimately though, both events added to the fact that these days nothing is shocking and that art has lost some of the power of its inherent “shock value”, as today we are used to the concept of ‘the Spectacle’, as Guy Debord would call it. 

In the westernised world, as perennial spectators, we are accustomed to all manner of things, both beneficial and threatening, as information is readily available on the internet. This has perhaps watered down the effect art can have. When you stop to think of the implications of this, you heed that it is both a good and a bad thing.

Hopefully, the medieval-esque days of religious fury aimed at art are long gone. On the other hand, has modern art, be it music, literature and visual art, lost some of its traditional verve? Is it now just a beige pastiche of itself?

Watch a documentary on the ‘Rushdie Affair’ below.