Here’s some good news for aging hippies. It’s time to replenish your stocks of patchouli oil and weed; you’ll want to be celebrating, because Cat Stevens has a new album coming out this summer! According to an Associated Press report Wednesday, “the ‘Peace Train’ hitmaker worked for years on the 12 new songs, revisiting familiar themes.” Hey, that’s swell. But what exactly constitutes “familiar themes” for the musician who identifies himself on Twitter as “Yusuf Islam the Artist also known as Cat Stevens”? Will the new album be called Salman Rushdie Had It Coming and 11 Other Songs?
Okay, seriously, the album is called King of a Land, and AP explains that the familiar themes it revisits are ones of “togetherness.” It even sounds as if the album cover is a conscious imitation of his early Seventies offerings: “The album cover illustration shows a boy playing guitar on top of the Earth, as a cat stretches and a train puffs along a track.” Yeah, that sounds like a Cat Stevens album cover, all right. AP also notes that “the first single is the cheerful, family friendly ‘Take the World Apart,’ with the lyrics ‘I’ll take the world apart/to find a place for a peaceful heart.’” More resonances: that sounds just like the peace-and-love stuff Cat sang about during the High Hippie Days.
Cat himself says that the album is rooted in material that is even older: “The source of musical inspiration for this song came from the 50s. The smoochy harmonies and chords have an enchanting effect on the ear. Life was simpler then: lonely hearts yearning for love.” Gee, that’s awfully sweet, but can Cat’s latest reinvention of himself really obscure what he became after the first time he gave us cats and trains and peace music? Should we forget, when we put on King of a Land and hear ol’ Cat looking once again for a “place for a peaceful heart,” that for a considerable period, Cat Stevens was anything but peaceful?
As the Washington Post, of all people, reminded us in 2021, when Cat Stevens was first reemerging after decades of silence, as a new convert to Islam, he enthusiastically endorsed the death fatwa against Salman Rushdie for supposedly blaspheming Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. In 1989, “after Rushdie had officially been targeted because of his portrayal of the prophet Muhammad in his novel ‘The Satanic Verses,’ Stevens had matter-of-factly confirmed that the Koran prescribes death as the punishment for blasphemy.” Nor was this simply a matter of confirming that the death penalty for blasphemy was indeed Islamic teaching.
Confronted on a BBC show, “Stevens was asked directly whether Rushdie deserved to die. ‘Yes, yes,’ he replied, without much hesitation. Were Rushdie, a marked man, to come to him for help, how would he respond? With what he subsequently insisted was nothing more than an ill-advised attempt at dry humor, a straight-faced Stevens said, ‘I might ring somebody who might do more damage to him than he would like. I’d try to phone the Ayatollah Khomeini and tell him exactly where this man is.’ When asked whether he would participate in the burning of an effigy of the author, he replied that he would instead hope it were ‘the real thing.’”
When the predictable firestorm ensued, Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam issued a press release “indicating that his comments had been manipulated in the editing room and taken out of context (this, despite the fact that the New York Times reported that Stevens had ‘watched a preview of the program today and said in an interview that he stood by his comments’).” On his official website, Stevens makes a patently false claim: “I never called for the death of Salman Rushdie; nor backed the Fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini – and still don’t.”
In the very next sentence, he blames Rushdie’s book, not Khomeini’s fatwa, for all the trouble: “The book itself destroyed the harmony between people and nations and created an international crisis.”
Salman Rushdie himself would have none of Stevens’ denials, saying, “For many years, Yusuf Islam has been pretending he didn’t say the things he said in 1989, when he enthusiastically supported the Iranian terrorist edict against me and others. However, his words are on the record, in print interviews and on television programs.… I’m afraid Cat Stevens got off the peace train a long time ago.”
Indeed. As recently as 2011, a user published on YouTube a nasheed in which the author of “Peace Train” sang, “I’m praying to Allah to give us victory over the kuffar” (unbelievers). Does Yusuf/Cat still pray for victory over the kuffar? What kind of victory?
In 2004, Yusuf Islam was barred from entering the United States because of suspicions that he had been financing jihad terrorism. He acknowledged that some of his money may have gone to jihadis, but he claimed to have given money to them unwittingly.
But today no one cares about all that. Fans will eagerly snap up Cat’s new album and ride the peace train once again, just like in the days when they claimed to constitute a “free speech movement.” But the lingering questions remain: didn’t their hero, whom they thought was driving the peace train, get off that train many years ago?