Yusuf/Cat Stevens ‘cleverly framed’ to look like he backed Rushdie fatwa

Yusuf/Cat Stevens has said he was “cleverly framed” to look like he supported the fatwa against author Sir Salman Rushdie.

Sir Salman lived in hiding for many years after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his execution over his 1988 book The Satanic Verses.

Singer-songwriter Stevens, 72, was accused of backing the fatwa, although he vehemently denied this was true at the time.

Salman Rushdie comments
Sir Salman Rushdie (Matt Crossick/PA)

Appearing on Desert Island 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 10 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.”

Broadcasting Press Guild Awards – London
Lauren Laverne (Ian West/PA)

Stevens was born Steven Demetre Georgiou but converted to Islam in 1977 after a near-death experience and later adopted the name Yusuf Islam.

Speaking to host Lauren Laverne, he recalled growing up around and working in his Greek Cypriot father and Swedish mother’s restaurant, the Moulin Rouge, in London’s Soho.

Stevens 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.

He spoke of the challenges he faced after his high-profile conversion.

He said: “Now I had a new audience, if you like, and they were split.

“There was the Muslim world which was absolutely infatuated with me because it had loved the idea this pop star has become a Muslim.

Music for the Marsden – London
Yusuf/Cat Stevens on stage (Ian West/PA)

“In Turkey there were big crowds coming to hear me give talks and things like that. I was raised on this pedestal.

“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.”

Stevens also recalled the near-death experience of drowning in Malibu, California, that prompted him to convert to Islam.

He said: “I was an Englishman. I didn’t know it wasn’t wise to go out at that time of day and take a swim, so I did.

“I decided to turn back and head for shore and, of course, at that point I realised ‘I’m fighting the Pacific’. There was no way I was going to win.

“There was only one thing to do and that was to pray to the almighty to save me. And I did.

“I called out to God and he saved me. A little wave came from behind. It wasn’t big. It was just simply pushing me forward.

“The tide somehow had changed and I was able to get back to land. So I was saved. I didn’t know what was going to happen next.”

He also admitted he thought he might die while suffering a bout of tuberculosis as a teenager.

He said: “I didn’t know if I was going to die. I thought maybe the doctors are not telling me everything. They are keeping it back from me.”

His music choices on Desert Island Discs included America from West Side Story, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Nina Simone and his own song The Wind.

For his book Stevens chose the Mathnawi, a collection of spiritual poems by Rumi.

Desert Island Discs is on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 4 on Sunday at 11am.