Monday, February 6, 2012

Why no boycott of Cat Stevens?

If recent weeks have reminded us of anything about the Lebanese left, it is that they are hardly boycott-shy. The practice, which has a history in the country going back at least as far as the Israel Boycott Law of 1955, has aimed at some high profile targets in contemporary music, including concerts held by the DJs Tiesto and Armin van Buuren and the rock band Placebo (where the campaign was so successful that the event organiser has filed a lawsuit for damages). The ink has still yet to dry in the local papers about the latest one against the singer Lara Fabian, which resulted in the cancellation of her concert and a consequent spate of bad press for the boycotters, who have been decried as "cultural terrorists", "fanatics" and even agents of "Iran's elite Al-Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards Corp [seeking to establish] a state of Islamic jurisprudence". (It happens that I know the man behind the Fabian campaign. As a self-described atheist of Christian birth, he will undoubtedly have been fascinated to learn this.)

However, in such a high-voltage environment of activist enthusiasm, it seems peculiar that nothing is being said or done about the Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam (apparently he now prefers simply 'Yusuf') concert being held at the Beiteddine Art Festival next Saturday. Stevens/Yusuf, you may recall, was the man who repeatedly and publicly endorsed the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini for the murder of Salman Rushdie. He now greasily denies ever having done this on his website, but as always in our Internet age, the evidence is only a click away. We may now all watch with our own eyes as the following exchanges take place on British television between Stevens/Yusuf and the renowned human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC:

Robertson: You don't think that this man deserves to die?
Yusuf: Who, Salman Rushdie?
Robertson: Yes.
Yusuf: Yes, yes.
Robertson: And do you have a duty to be his executioner?
Yusuf: No, not necessarily, unless we were in an Islamic state and I was ordered, let's say, by the judge or by the authority to carry out such an act, perhaps, yes.

Robertson: Would you go to a demonstration where you knew that an effigy was going to be burnt?
Yusuf: I would have hoped that it'd be the real thing.
As Rushdie himself noted in a letter to the Sunday Telegraph titled 'Cat Stevens wanted me dead':

He added that "if Mr Rushdie turned up at his doorstep looking for help, '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'.''

In a subsequent interview with The New York Times, Mr [Craig] Whitney added, Stevens/Islam, who had seen a preview of the programme, said that he "stood by his comments".
Surely every leftist worth the name revolts at this call for the murder of a novelist for 'blasphemy'? Could anything be more viciously puritanical, more theocratic, more fascistic? What does it say about the state of our world when such a despicable thug not only retains his place in polite society, but thrives? One somehow suspects that were a Jewish singer to call for the murder of a Muslim novelist, citing the authority of the Torah, he would not be invited by Jon Stewart to play a song called 'Peace Train' at a rally attended by tens of thousands of American liberals. Nor would such a character likely be welcomed at one of Lebanon's preeminent cultural festivals. Yet the left in that country, which barks itself hoarse when a woman says "I love you Israel", is apparently unperturbed by a man who says that an atheist writer of fiction "deserves to die", and claims his preparedness to take the life himself if given the nod from the right "authority".

The point is not, of course, that boycotting Israel is wrong. Boycotts are an indispensable method of democratic and nonviolent protest, and the Israeli government is a deserving target if ever there was one (an observation underscored by the law passed in the Knesset last year banning the boycotting of West Bank settlements). But to boycott Lara Fabian while staying silent on Cat Stevens/Yusuf invites the accusation of Israeli exceptionalism, and undermines the supposed universalism of the radical cause.

The left can do, and has done, better. At a PEN rally in New York in the aftermath of the fatwa, it was pointed out (by the late Christopher Hitchens, in fact¹) that the text of the death sentence covered not only Rushdie himself but "all those involved in [The Satanic Verses'] publication". A petition was thus circulated in which the signatories declared themselves "co-responsible for publication". As the subsequent murder of the book's Japanese translator and the attempts on the lives of its Italian translator and Norwegian publisher demonstrated, this was not a declaration that came without risk. Nor has the threat to Rushdie's life entirely disappeared, as he discovered at the Jaipur Literary Festival only last month. There again, courageous individuals were on hand to defend him, as when the novelist Hari Kunzru decided to use his slot to read passages from the Verses in protest of the alleged plot to assassinate Rushdie if he made his scheduled appearance. I will not be in Lebanon on the day of Stevens'/Yusuf's performance, but I will be reading from my favourite pages of the novel, and I invite all my Lebanese friends - as well as anyone else who thinks it worthwhile to protect the fragile buds of free expression, literature and humour from the marching jackboots of clerical fascism - to spend their evening doing the same.

¹Hitchens, C., Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere (2000), p. 126

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