Yusuf Islam: From pop idol to Islamic star

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The Independent Online

Why did the FBI put Yusuf Islam, the well-known British Muslim, on their "no-fly" list and call him a threat to American security? Was it his slightly too Islamic name? His offensively sharia-tastic beard? Or was it because they'd examined the songs he once sang as Cat Stevens, and discovered numerous lyrics that are oddly suggestive of violence? "Oh I can't keep it in/ I can't keep it in, I gotta let it out" - what's that all about, if not some kind of explosion? In "Moonshadow", amid all the sappy optimism, he sings, "And if I ever lose my legs/ I won't moan and I won't beg" - an obvious insight into the mind of a (frankly rather hopeful) suicide bomber. And hang on a goddam moment, what was the chorus of his second hit back in the Sixties? "I'm gonna get me a gun/ I'm gonna get me a gun/ And all the people who put me down/ Had better get ready to run..." Phew. No wonder they kicked him out.

Why did the FBI put Yusuf Islam, the well-known British Muslim, on their "no-fly" list and call him a threat to American security? Was it his slightly too Islamic name? His offensively sharia-tastic beard? Or was it because they'd examined the songs he once sang as Cat Stevens, and discovered numerous lyrics that are oddly suggestive of violence? "Oh I can't keep it in/ I can't keep it in, I gotta let it out" - what's that all about, if not some kind of explosion? In "Moonshadow", amid all the sappy optimism, he sings, "And if I ever lose my legs/ I won't moan and I won't beg" - an obvious insight into the mind of a (frankly rather hopeful) suicide bomber. And hang on a goddam moment, what was the chorus of his second hit back in the Sixties? "I'm gonna get me a gun/ I'm gonna get me a gun/ And all the people who put me down/ Had better get ready to run..." Phew. No wonder they kicked him out.

The official reason was more alarming, if frustratingly short on detail. The FBI had sent the plane a computerised list of banned persons, a list apparently containing "old data, stuff from years back". It therefore included the occasion in 2000 when he was refused entry into Jerusalem, because he was suspected of giving money to a "charity" that steered it into the coffers of Hamas. This suspicion has been around for at least 10 years. Alarmingly, the US authorities repeated the allegations on Wednesday and said they had fresh evidence about Islam's links with terrorism. "The particular criteria under which he was refused entry to the US specifically relate to people having financial links to known terrorist groups... This was not what you might call historical information. It was gathered very recently and relates to events which have taken place in 2004."

As the world now knows, Yusuf Islam flew from Heathrow airport last Tuesday with his 21-year-old daughter. They were en route to Washington DC to have meetings with staff from his Small Kindness charity, after which Islam was off to visit Dolly Parton in Nashville to discuss peace projects. But the FBI ordered the captain to make a 600-mile detour to Bangor airport, Maine, where Islam and his daughter were marched off the plane and questioned. He was refused entry into the US and told he'd be put on a plane home to England.

It quickly became an international incident. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, was in New York when the news broke; he told Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, "this action should not have been taken", a form of words that, in diplomatic circles, is a howling indictment. Back home, Islam said he was "totally shocked" by the deportation and threatened legal redress. The Muslim Council of Britain hit the roof. "Yusuf Islam," they said, "is one of most reasonable and moderate of Muslims, who does a lot of work for charity and campaigns for peace." The US Council on American-Islamic Relations harrumphed: "When internationally respected Islamic personalities like Yusuf Islam are denied entry to the United States, it sends the disturbing message that even moderate Muslims will be treated like terrorists."

And he is, of course, the most moderate of Muslims. Everyone knows that. The Independent recently claimed, "Mr Islam's whole career is testimony to the fact that he is about as averse to terrorism as it is possible to be." But there is an albatross around his neck that he has found it impossible to shake off - the suspicion that he is not quite the innocent visionary he's seemed since 1977, when he forswore the altar of pop-star fame and converted to Islam. A chronic British distrust of religiosity means that the former singer's conversion has always been viewed with a jaundiced eye. We preferred him when he was Cat Stevens, the beardy singer-songwriter, whose guttural, choppy voice issued from the speakers of a million bedsits in the 1970s and went down a storm with pallid girl students in Laura Ashley smocks. (Especially the line "Ooh baby baby it's a wild world,/ It's hard to get by just upon a smile", which made them shudder.)

More tuneful than Tim Buckley, more upbeat than Leonard Cohen, more spiritual than James Taylor or Neil Young, Cat Stevens was the singer-songwriter of the early 1970s. And he was our boy, born in London, Catholic-educated, growing up in a café in New Oxford Street and the seedy purlieus of 1950s Soho. With his swarthy good looks and his songs about spiritual journeying, he was the gypsy of English pop. He was too peculiar to be cool (those children's storybook scenes he painted for his album covers didn't help) and he had detractors. "At a rock festival, if you saw a man in flares carrying a copy of Tea for the Tillerman," said John Peel darkly, "you could be absolutely certain he was a member of the drugs squad." But he was the bohemian troubadour for a generation, and he was adored. So when he gave it all up, the British public's disappointment was a cut that turned septic.

He was born Steven Demetre Georgiou, son of a Greek Cypriot father, Stavros, and a Swedish mother, Ingrid. They ran the Moulin Rouge restaurant in New Oxford Street, where the young Steven waited on tables. His parents separated when he was eight, but were reunited as business partners. His early ambition was to be a painter, but he dropped out of Hammersmith Art College after a year, persuaded his father to buy him a guitar and wrote his first songs. One day he banged on the door of a showbiz manager called Mike Hurst, and offered to play some songs. Hurst approved, and asked his name. "Cat," said Cat. "It's because I had a girlfriend who thought I had eyes like a cat. But I'm going to change it." "Don't you dare," said Hurst, who could see a pop star in the making. Inside a year, Hurst had found him a producer (Paul Samwell-Smith) and his first two releases, "I Love My Dog" and "Matthew and Son", had hit the Top 20.

On his first major UK tour, still only 19, he shared the programme - unimaginably - with Jimi Hendrix, the wild man of the Stratocaster, and Engelbert Humperdinck, doyen of the frill-fronted cabaret shirt. More hits followed, and more touring; a lot of drinking and smoking and pop-star behaviour almost cost his life. In March 1968, he was diagnosed with TB. Cat Stevens retired to a hospital, brooded on the point of the life he'd come close to leaving, and began to write a new kind of songs - not pop nonsense any more, but a song cycle about personal discovery. He emerged from the hospital with 40 songs, which he gradually released over the next three albums, Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat. Sales rocketed. A fourth album, Catch Bull at Four, went to No 1 in the charts.

It was clear from the outset that Stevens was preoccupied with alternative religions, spiritual growth and the wilder shores of belief. He threw himself, successively, into Zen Buddhism, astrology, numerology and the works of the English sage Paul Brunton. Like W B Yeats, mysticism was his university. His break from the material world came with an epiphany on Malibu beach in 1976. He went swimming before lunch, and found a strong current carrying him out to sea. Fearing he was going to drown, he prayed and said "God, if you save me, I will work for you" and found himself carried to shore on a gentle wave.

Soon afterwards, his brother and manager David gave him a copy of the Koran, and his life changed. He started to attend the Regent Street mosque and auctioned off his instruments. He changed his name to Yusuf Islam and in 1977 gave his last concert, in Sarajevo. On 23 December that year, he announced that his new record, Back to Earth, would be his last. He told the thunderstruck press that he was entering into an arranged marriage (with Fauzia Mubarak Ali, daughter of a Surbiton accountant) and was selling off all his possessions to devote himself to the Muslim faith.

And he has remained true to his word. He has become a kind of secular mullah. He lives off the royalties from his songs, but gives half the money to charity each year. The only records he has produced in 25 years have been spoken-word versions of Islamic texts, with snappy titles like Welcome to the Qu'ran: Gateway to Faith. He lives in a modest semi-detached house. His arranged marriage yielded five children. His money has gone into founding no fewer than four Muslim "Islamia" schools, which regularly come top of the local academic tables. He has invited Prince Charles to his schools and has lobbied such political heavyweights as Tony Blair and David Blunkett for direct government funding. His saintly credentials are a mile high. He delivered aid to Bosnia, was the first pop star to be UN ambassador. He has even been a peace envoy to Iraq, where he performed "Peace Train" in a one-off concert.

The only trouble lies in the question of just how extreme are his beliefs. As a card-carrying Muslim believer, he is on a dangerous line that separates the zealot from the fanatic. He has never lived down a shocking episode in February 1989, when, after a speech in Kingston-on-Thames, he was asked by an incognito reporter how, as a Muslim, he responded to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Whatever he said, it was transformed into the Today headline, "Kill Rushdie Says Cat". When asked if he would intervene were he to see a knife-wielding Muslim heading for Rushdie, he replied, "I might stick a foot out and trip him up..."

Nobody, in other words, knows how far this former romantic Englishman would go in pursuit of his faith. Is he a pacifist first or a Muslim first? Is he a fundamentalist? Does he wish English society would conform to sharia law? Is he safe to leave standing beside the heir to the throne, and the executive head of state?

The answers to these questions are a) a Muslim, b) we don't know, c) probably not and d) yes it is. But the questions remain. Has this passionate convert and philanthropist knowingly made charitable offerings to militant Palestinians? Has his charity been exploited by wily Muslim hardliners? Is his educational initiative a way of ghettoising Muslim children away from the infidels? Is the man who sings "Peace Train" actually heading for the edge of darkness?

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born

Steven Demetre Georgiou, 21 July 1948, in London, to a Swedish mother and a Greek Cypriot father, who ran a restaurant in London's Soho.

Family

Married, in 1977, to Fauzia. They have five children.

Education

Left school at the age of 16 with an 'A' grade O-level in art; entered Hammersmith Art College but did not complete his degree.

Career

As Cat Stevens, in 1966, he recorded his first single, "I Love My Dog". Following hits included "Matthew and Son", "Here Comes My Baby", "Wild World", "Morning Has Broken", "Moonshadow" and "Peace Train", selling 35 million records. Stopped recording in 1977.

Religion

Converted to Islam in 1977, and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. Founded the Islamia Schools' Trust in 1982 to run Muslim schools in the UK.

He says...

"Crimes against innocent bystanders taken hostage in any circumstance have no foundation whatsoever in the life of Islam."

They say...

"His only work, his only mind-set, is humanitarian causes. He just wants to be an ambassador for peace."

- David Gordon, brother and business manager

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