[6 October 2004]
I’m the last person Cat Stevens would probably want to defend him. After all, I loathe religious fundamentalists with a passion that’s almost religious and fundamental. I even refer to Cat Stevens’ career, when it comes up, as B.A. (“Before he became an Asshole”). But my disdain for the devout rarely affects my principles and my belief that part of enjoying the freedom to speak is enduring how much of that liberty is pearls before swine or cattle if making the metaphor kosher will deaden some of the insult therein. I’ll spare you the obligatory reminiscences about Cat Stevens’ signature sound, about the time I cried when I heard “Father & Son”, about the pubescent epiphany of Harold & Maude (he contributed to the soundtrack for this movie), or the old school punker I met in Austin who, when Stevens’ name was brought up, fumed: “That fucker stood for everything I hated about music.”
Stevens’ musical legacy and ability to shape Kodak moments on the guitar will be left to the critics that care. His denial of entry into the United States, however, should bother every person, even the most jaded among us, who’ve never in their life substituted an ex’s name in a soft rock adult contemporary classic. I digress.
On 22nd September, United Airlines Flight 919 was diverted from Dulles Airport to Bangor Maine because one of the passenger’s listed on the flight manifest, Yusef Islam (Cat Stevens’ conversion name), was flagged as a person on the “no-fly” list. Obviously, the risk of a possible terrorist attack resulting from letting Islam on their airplane in the first place was low-level at best, or else the Administration has an apology forthcoming to the people of Maine. It’d be a tough decision, after all, if there were a real terrorist on board. I’d probably say: “one of the square states”.
As it was, Yusef Islam was then put on a plane home, while his daughter was allowed to remain in the country. US authorities refused to outline the basis of their claim, as if they had consulted the bones to arrive at their conclusion that this cat was too dangerous to set foot on our soil. Islam’s case is emblematic of much that has gone wrong in the war on terror, both in the domestic erosion of government transparency and intellectual unraveling of our objectives abroad.
In the absence of quantifiable evidence, many flimsy reasons for Islam’s deflection from our shores have been brought forward. One red herring reason that was immediately rolled out was his apparent agreement with the Salman Rushdie death fatwa issued by the Aayatollah Khomeni. Islam has since issued contrite and contextualizing backpedals, stating that when he was asked about the book, he merely stated what he understood to be the teachings of his religion concerning fatwas, and therefore he responded much like a Catholic asked about the stupid shit the Pope says. To recount the history of this comment here would be a condensing injustice, it’s better to read Islam’s own explanation of what he meant, which seems entirely plausible to me, minus a little skirting of the issue. After all, it’d be much better if he just said that people should be allowed the freedom of any speech they wish, even if it hurts the feelings of Allah.
As a clever dodge, he reminds readers that the Bible also calls for the murder of blasphemers as well as people who get it on with donkeys in Tijuana. What has he done to make his fatwa agreement a reality? Not much, but he did send a letter to Rushdie’s publisher that merely asked for the prevention of the book’s publication, sans a S.A.S.E. demanding Rushdie’s eyeballs. Moreover, Islam has gone on to say that Muslims should not travel to Christian countries and execute purveyors of blasphemy. As far as I know, holding the opinion that blasphemy should be punishable by death, as long as you don’t organize to unlawfully implement that belief, would be an entirely protected speech act in the US.
The real issues though, are the Bush Administration’s claims of having unearthed “information” connecting Islam to terrorism and Israel’s expulsion of him based on its claim (which he has denied) that he has given money to Hamas. What is the credibility of Bush’s statements related to terrorism? This is an administration that still doggedly purports ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda, as if they’re all at a slumber party playing “light as a feather, stiff as a board”, and their collective assertions will be willed into truth even if based on naked falsehoods. Bush’s war motives were offered like a frat boy itching for a sorority sister’s snatch box: a thousand unconvincing rationales, of varying degrees of truth, with no honesty at the core of any of them. If Israel’s claims are true, Islam’s expulsion is a sensible decision, if only because the immorality of murdering civilians in the course of war should be something all nations should aspire to prevent, including the US. Although the Bush Administration’s stated reasons for deporting Islam are at first compelling, they rapidly lose traction and credibility given that Islam is still roaming free despite these shadowy ties to evildoers.
Israel also refused Islam entry for unelaborated ties to Hamas four years ago, and this may indeed be the source of our government’s decision making. But if Islam was a serious financier of a group that murders Israeli citizens, it’s curious that he was redirected and not imprisoned. Indeed, the only evidence of Islam’s threat to the US offered is a lot empty, dire warnings that come with diluting rejoinders like “potentially linked”, a phrase that sounds vague and removed enough to suddenly put Kevin Bacon in danger. (You can read Colin Powell’s and the Department of Homeland Security’s comments here at Reuters, “Cat Stevens calls deportation ‘ridiculous’”, 23 September 2004) I’m not saying that these ties aren’t possible, but do we really have to trust the Administration that told us that Yasser Hamdi was so dangerous that to try him would crack our criminal justice system like an egg on Schwarzenegger’s fake ‘n’ bake ass? Yet Hamdi was released years later with no charges, no trial, and not even one of those electronic ankle weights that burn calories and track you via satellite. The language used by the Department of Homeland Security such as “raises our concern” sounds tepid at best, as if spokesman Brian Doyle could barely keep himself from winking over his lemongrass tea and saying “oh, he’s just naughty, that one”. Dahlia Lithwick’s excellent thumbnail of the Administration’s terrorist catch and release program can be read here on Slate, “Nevermind” (23 September 2004).
The charge that Islam gave money to terrorists also seems inexcusably generalist, since such a specific charge, tied to a credible intent, would surely mean that he’d be in a prison cell as I write this. Especially since the Bush administration uses its “enemy combatant” wand as indiscriminately as Rachel McAdams the slam book in Mean Girls. But as previous arrests for such front groups show (see the Washington Post, “Muslim Charity, Officials Indicted”, 27 July, 2004), people donating money to the organizations may not themselves be aware of the funding channels which end up in terrorist slush funds. If the Administration bought the supposedly plausible deniability of Princess Haifa al-Faisal who actually gave directly to people involved in bombing the World Trade Towers (Remember them? The people we used to be fighting?) then how can Homeland Security possibly justify the denial of entry based upon giving to charities that then secretly funnel funds to organizations that, while on the State Department’s terrorism list, are not organizations that have currently or ever declared war on the United States. (See “Questioning Saudi Arabia”, ABCNews, 25 November 2003) But the Bush administration has been loath to establish procedure where it might have to sacrifice power, preferring policy purgatory to set guidelines, and paternalistic declarations over public scrutiny. And these are just the President’s character strengths.
Indeed, even after reading his caveat-filled explanations and bromides about peace and Allah, I still think Islam is an idiotic religious fundamentalist and you won’t find me defending him for his beliefs, which I consider a bane to all decent, freedom-loving people everywhere: much like the beliefs of Jerry Falwell, John Ashcroft, and Alan Keyes. Even FrontPage magazine, a gusher of dotty right-wing rambling, conceded: “Is the singer a terrorist himself? Probably not. Is he an active sympathizer of terrorist groups? Perhaps not as much as he was in the past.” “Is Cat Stevens A Terrorist?”, 23 September 2004) FrontPage has the audacity to go on to claim that Islam is a dangerous man for his beliefs about the potential evil to come from instruments and music. But this makes him only as dangerous as plenty of Baptists, members of The Church of Christ (one branch of which believes musical instruments in the church are sinful), or the entire town in Footloose. The most salient argument in the FrontPage piece is the point where the article tries to smear Islam because he said something nice about someone who said some things that were crazy. But I’d be surprised if there weren’t plenty of Republicans who have praised R. J. Rushdoony, the godfather of Christian Reconstructionism who believed that people who criticized Christianity or had gay sex should be put to death. It’s most telling that FrontPage requires a guilty association in order to malign the man, since Islam’s own words seem insufficiently noosing.
The Bush Administration’s exclusion of Islam was a lousy idea on at least a couple of grounds. First, it cements the illogic of this war by enfolding other conflicts firmly within its scope. Are we now openly at war with the intifada? Rather than seeing the Israeli and Palestinian feud as a battle between a nation and nationless ethnicity with competing land deeds signed by God, are we now arguing that because some radical groups use suicidal violence as a means to further there goals, that they then become our enemy by virtue of their tactics alone? Where will this place us with the Chechens? Can we not support Chechen moderates who want their independence from Russia, after a brutal forced relocation by Josef Stalin, just because they’re Muslim and some extremists among them kill civilians in their struggle to win their war for a nation-state of their own? Such methods are indeed a deplorable reality, but tactics nevertheless used by Israel against the British and the US against Japan (See HistoryLearningSite.co.uk.) The more philosophically disembodied this war on terror becomes (e.g., East versus West), the less we’ll be able to fight it. George Bush’s firm moral ground makes us look more and more like Wile E. Coyote overshooting his aim for the Road Runner. Eventually, we’ll have to look down.
Excluding a voice that has repeatedly called for peace and understanding even if that voice is the former Cat Stevens’ further deepens our losses in the hearts and minds aspect of the war, which up until this point has been fought entirely with fists and spit. Because religiosity is sacrosanct in our culture, it seems we are never seriously allowed to question the motivations of fundamentalist Christians. No one dares ask if, when George Bush talks to God, God responds with “kill everyone of them there fuckers”. This despite the fact that Bush is known to hold regular meetings with our homegrown religious radicals who offer advice on how Biblical prophecy should shape US policies in the Middle East (Village Voice (”The Jesus Landing Pad”, 5 May 2004).
But George Bush’s framing of the conflict, in all its amorphous boundaries, has the dangerous ever-encroaching tendency to bleed into deadly generalization. What started as a conflict against a definable international entity with a clearly describable ideology has morphed from Al Qaeda, to Islamic Radicalism, to Muslim fundamentalists, to cherry picked evildoers, to some Holy War clash of the civilizations. George Bush’s only palpable accomplishment in the war on terror is to have amassed enemies with all the indiscriminate hunger of static cling. If a peace advocate who gave money to the survivors and families of victims of September 11th can’t come to our country, then we have created a thought crime litmus at the water’s edge, where our strident, well-intentioned critics will be categorically forced into bed with our mortal enemies.
If George Bush really wants to make the world safer, he’ll finally get around to telling us who it is, exactly, we at war with. Though his Lord of the Rings catch phrases act as the verbal version of a tube sock stuffed down the front of his wranglers, his big package doesn’t wow the facts on the ground. We’re alternately fighting Islamic Nationalists, Muslim Fundamentalists, Palestinians, secular dictators, Al Qaeda, and now pop stars with impolitic opinions. Our allies in said battles are alternately Islamic Nationalists, military dictatorships, police states, and tyrannical monarchies. Bush gets credit for resolute action and plain spokenness, though neither trait has been very useful, truthful, or enlightening in the so-called war on terror.
Rather, Bush’s action is that of a swinging drunk, sure that someone offended him that night, and the flinging fists of random justice will do the job. His words are devoid of actual meaning, a mere façade of a mansion in front of a tin shack of thought. His proclamations of “good versus evil” make sense within the cloistered ecstasy of his campaign rallies, where “followers” project their egos into the mind of God and then bay away for the murder of others who do the same.
Was there even the most remote chance that Islam was traveling with his daughter to the US to perform an act of terrorism? I seriously doubt it, especially given Great Britain’s entreaties on his behalf. If there’s evidence that there’s wrongdoing, then prosecute him, or let the public in on exactly how this shadowy “no-fly” list is created and how we might remove moderate Muslims mistakenly listed as banned from our country. If John Kerry is a “flip-flopper”, President Bush is a moral shapeshifter, avoiding charges of changing his mind by never having made it up in the first place.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/sawyer041006/