Oh, peace train, take this country.
Come take me home again
Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf Islam), 1971
"With respect to Cat Stevens … our Homeland Security Department and intelligence agencies found some information concerning his activities that they felt under our law required him to be placed on a watch list and therefore deny him entry into the United States. In this instance, information was obtained that suggested he should be placed on the watch list and that’s why he was denied entry into the country."
Colin Powell, September 14, 2004
Cat Stevens in 1978 announced that he had converted to Islam, becoming Yusuf Islam. This itself wouldn’t have been a big issue to fan like me. After all, there were Muslim pop singers like Jimmy Cliff, and singers into all kinds of religion. But he simultaneously gave up singing, finding his own work sinful and embarrassing, and even asked his record companies to stop circulating his material. So it seemed like Islam, his version of it anyway, had stolen Cat Stevens from us.
But Stevens was my favorite singer-songwriter in high school, and loving his work, admiring his versatility (doing the artwork for his own album-covers), and knowing that he’d had a difficult life, I always wished him well. If religion brought him peace, I thought he deserved it. During the controversies that followed, including his sympathetic remarks about Khomeini in Iran, and about the Salman Rushdie fatwa affair, I thought he was trying to convey the feelings of Muslims to the western world. (As the London-born son of a Greek Cypriot and Swede, his roots are all over that world.) I didn’t and don’t agree with a lot of what he’s said, but I do think his work reveals a sensitive, decent person. I think the Yusuf of 2004 is still fundamentally the Cat of 1970.
My favorite Cat Stevens song is one of his most popular: "Father and Son," written for Revolussia, his never-produced musical/film which I take it was set during the Russian Revolution, in which a father gently tells his (Bolshevik?) son:
It’s not time to make a change,
Just relax, take it easy.
You’re still young, that’s your fault,
There’s so much you have to know.
I wondered at the time this came out (1970) about the line "that’s your fault" since of course it’s no young person’s responsibility that he or she is young. But I checked a dictionary and discovered that "fault" can mean "weakness." The father here is, through Cat’s mellow voice, saying, "The problem is you’re just too young to understand the world." Go out, settle down, marry, be like me. You’ll be happy.
In that so familiar song, the son responds indignantly, in a contrastingly angry, bitter, but equally confident tone, not directly to the father but to the world he wants to change:
How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.
It’s always been the same, same old story.
From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.
Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away.
When I first heard this I was doing what the National Forensics League called "dramatic interpretation," in which the student takes a scene from a drama and through voice variation and facial angles represents dialogue between two or more actors. I didn’t know this was written as part of a musical which would involve a duet, but was impressed by Cat Stevens performing both roles in this song.
The father repeats the same refrain, with the son interrupting his wise words at the
Away Away Away, I know I have to
Make this decision alone—no
The son inveighs against his father and the world, explaining how all the things he’s come to know inside are hard to face, but harder to ignore. As he repeats at the end "I know I have to go," the father in the background asks "Why must you go and make this decision alone?" That’s the inconclusive end. It leaves you moved by generational and historical change and the whole complicated human condition. It’s not the work of a narrow mind or potential threat to peace-loving people.
Yet here you have the creator of this piece, and so many brilliant other ones, a man associated with charitable work and the establishment of mosques, boarding a plane with his daughter from London to the U.S., after the normal security checks, planning to do some recording in Nashville. He’s apprehended as a possible terror suspect after the plane was diverted from its flight path to Bangor Maine by U.S. authorities, causing lots of inconvenience to lots of people, and sent back to Heathrow Airport. You have British Foreign Minister Jack Straw protesting to Colin Powell, probably saying "Don’t you think you’re getting a bit paranoid here, and don’t you think this will be seen as ridiculous in the world?" and that very sad figure Powell publicly justifying the action. The inquiring mind turns to the internet to find some rationale, and learns that in 2000 Yusuf Islam was denied admission to Israel, accused of donating funds to Hamas in 1998. He denied any knowing contribution to Hamas.
Yusuf Islam has sponsored orphanages in Hebron. Israeli authorities say such funds have been diverted to Hamas’ violent actions. I have no idea who’s right here. Muslims have to contribute to charities, if able; this is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Just like Mormons have to tithe. And if somebody uses somebody’s donation for other than the intended purpose (as happens, all the time, in contributions to respectable mainstream institutions in the U.S.) some government can say the donor supported that unintended purpose—and so should be on a watch list, or list of inadmissible persons. It can just smear people it wants to keep out.
The broad message of the Cat Stevens Incident is: even a ’70s rock star with millions of dollars and millions of fans, and no possible connection to 9-11, or any likely desire to ever inflict any harm on this country, can’t enter Ashcroft’s America if he’s Muslim, has been accused (rightly or wrongly) of ties to Palestinians (rightly or wrongly) accused of violence against non-Americans in a distant foreign country, and has spoken out against war on Iraq. This is to protect the USA from people who "hate our freedoms."
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org