What is a Fatwa? June 7, 2010

What is a Fatwa?

Years ago, Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam (the man who ironically sang “Peace Train”) wanted Salman Rushdie to die because of his book The Satanic Verses and the fatwa issued on his life.

Because of that, a member of the Australian Parliament, Peter Kavanagh, wants him banned from performing a concert in the country.

“Yusuf has evaded on this matter for years,” he said. ”I call on the Minister for Immigration to deny Mr Yusuf a visa to enter Australia unless he publicly and categorically states that he does not and will not support the murder of any person for the expression of views, no matter how offensive.”

Sounds like a strong move by the politician. If Yusuf Islam wants to perform, all he has to do is say something like, “Violence is wrong and I don’t condone murder — certainly not in the name of religion.”

Should be easy…

In a related article about celebrity converts and the influence they have for various faiths, Anson Cameron of The Age explains what a fatwa is in a very refreshing way:

The fatwa exists as a bodyguard to a belief. And is understandable only as a statement that goes something like this: I cannot really, in this day and age, expect you to swallow this many Disneyish scenarios unless I threaten to kill you if you don’t. So the fatwa is an admission the argument was lost.

We can extend that, too. Anytime someone says you can’t criticize their beliefs, it’s because their beliefs are too weak to withstand scrutiny.

(Thanks to Cameron for the link)

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  • Cobblestone

    I despised the fatwa against Rushdie, but I actually think the Australian legislator is wasting his time here.

    The EU countries, as well as Australia, have slightly different values about free speech than we do here in the US. Many countries have speech codes and laws that allow certain kinds of censorship that most of us in the States would find wholly unacceptable.

    Merely expressing an idea—even if it is a quasi-murderous one—should not bar someone from traveling freely, at least not in my moral universe. Notice the condition upon which the legislator wants Stevens to be granted a visa: he wants Stevens to affirm that he believes something that he probably doesn’t believe and would only be affirming to appease the immigration board. That’s a bad precedent, people. What if I wanted to travel to Yemen, but in order to get in the Yemeni government insisted—since I’ve written some things in the past that were critical of Islam—that I affirm the belief that Allah is God and Muhammad his only prophet? Would that be OK? I know, I know, it’s not the same thing—but it is the same basic principle: you may enter the country only if you “affirm” certain ideas.

  • Hitch

    A while back I read this:


    Fatwas are “nonbinding religious rulings”. Not particularly comforting in the case of Rushdie, where because of it translators and publishers died etc.

    Ultimately it’s irrelevant what a fatwa is, it’s relevant if whatever is uttered is good, bad, or downright ugly.

    For example the senile sudanese cleric who issued a fatwa against polio vaccinations because it was a conspiracy by “jews and freemasons” partly reversing the progress of the polio eradication program. Ugly.

    A “fatwa against terror” seems not very comforting when some out of whack clerlics and heads of state do more damage!

  • Atom Jack

    OK, Cobblestone, what if you went to Africa to help the disadvantaged learn, and the kids in your class picked an unfortunate name for their stuffed animal mascot? And YOU were incarcerated for it? Islam deserves ZIP for respect, right along with any other religion.

    The reasonable people in the world are going to get “multiculturalismed” right into oblivion, if some logic doesn’t prevail. The more the push for tolerance, the less chance the reasonable have to survive.

  • Let’s clarify what he actually said. He discusses the matter on his website here: http://www.yusufislam.com/faq/3ed8ab9cb40dcd15dc38b7f0efc2f696/

    The gist of it is, when the fatwa was first issued, he said in an interview that the Koran prescribes the death penalty for blasphemy, which it does, as does the Bible in parts. While it’s not surprising he finds Rushdie’s book deeply offensive, he has never claimed to actually support the fatwa.

  • BathTub

    Yusuf Islam, or someone working under his name, falsely flags any copies of the video where he admits he would take part in the execution of Salman Rushdie ‘in an Islamic country’. He made it very clear that Salman Rushdie deserved death.

  • Hitch

    There is documentation about what is said on wikipedia. No need to rehash.


    Needless to say that YI’s explanation that all abrahamic religions call for the killing of blasphemers is not really comforting for us heretics.

  • Cobblestone

    You make a point, Atom.

    I suppose my plea was not in the name tolerance of religion or in the name of multiculturalism, but more in the name of free expression. (Believe me, I don’t give a shit if religious people are “offended.”) It’s bad immigration policy for any country to say in order for so-and-so to be allowed in our country she must say that she didn’t really mean that stupid thing she said or wrote years ago. I’m just trying to avoid casuistry, I guess. What if it’s not Cat Stevens, but John Lennon–and the country’s not Australia, but Italy? If Italy said, “OK Johnny, you have to apologize and say you’re not bigger than Jesus after all, and only then will we let you in to see Rome,” I wouldn’t be cool with that. It’s the principle I object to, not the fact that it’s Cat Stevens who happens to be a bat-shit crazy Muslim. That I (in all likelihood) probably agree with this legislator’s point of view on the fatwa is incidental because I think the principle he’s espousing to bring attention to the issue stinks. You have to insert other people into the scenario, then crank the equation and see if you still agree with the behavior. I happen not to agree with the principle. If others think it’s OK, I don’t begrudge them.

  • Dan W

    Wow, Cat Stevens seems pretty crazy from his statements about Rushdie. I’ve thought for a long time that the fatwa calling for all Muslims to kill Rushdie is ridiculous. It’s this sort of crap that convinces me that Islam hasn’t earned my respect.

    In this situation, I think someone openly supporting murder of a man simply for what he wrote in a book is not someone I’d want in a civilized country. If Cat Stevens still supports the fatwa against Rushdie, I think Australia would be right to deny him from performing there.

  • I’m unclear on what you are advocating…are you saying it’s OK for the Australian immigration authorities to require Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam to read a disclaimer before he is allowed in to their country?

    I agree with Cobblestone.

  • fiddler

    So @cobblestone. Anyone threatening political assassination, death of jews or atheists, rape of children, gutting anyone with the name of cobblestone… is perfectly ok? Are you high? Yes @Simon, it is permissible for any nation to restrict entry if the person under restriction has called for the death of a certain group of people!
    Remember that he didn’t call for Rushdies death simply for the book, he did so in support of murdering heretics in general!

    Could someone add this to the “what do you dislike about atheists” thread? Because any of you that support this catshit stevens bastard deserve to be in that category.

  • Cameron

    Just to clarify, the Australian immigration officials aren’t going to prevent Yusuf Islam from entering the country; what the article refers to was a call from a member of the state legislative council who represents a fringe party and amounts to little more than political point scoring. Part of the reason that this issue even made the papers is that censorship is a sensitive issue in Australia at the moment, with the Federal Government attempting to introduce an internet censorship program along the lines of that of Iran or Thailand. Even if this were an initiative of the Federal Government, we already have many vocal hard-line supporters of Islam living here as naturalized Australians. One example that comes to mind is the former Mufti Taj Al-Hilaly who famously claimed that women who didn’t wear a hijab were like exposed meat and inviting of men to rape them, therefore leaving them men blameless for their actions.

    Whether or not Yusuf Islam supported the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah doesn’t really matter, all it does is serve to point out how barbaric people can be when incited by centuries-old scripture that really has no place in modern society. I don’t think anyone can claim that Yusuf’s association with Islam and his tour of Australia pose anywhere near as big a problem to society as the poisonous views of the Mufti.

  • Citizen Z

    Merely expressing an idea—even if it is a quasi-murderous one—should not bar someone from traveling freely, at least not in my moral universe.

    I doubt it sounded “quasi”-murderous to Salman Rushdie.

    His solution is silly. Stevens has already tried to cover up previous statements. The US kicked him out for supporting a terrorist organization, Australia would either have to designate Hamas as a whole as a terrorist organization (they don’t now), or show that Stevens supported the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades (military wing of Hamas that Australia has designated as a terrorist organization).

  • I did a small thesis paper in college (1997) about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and how the media, particularly the new-fangled internet, created a new definition of ‘fatwa’.

    I’m not a muslim (I don’t even think I know any muslims, actually), but it struck me that ‘fatwa’ became ‘call for death’ because of the call for Mr. Rushdie’s death.

    From my (admittedly meager month of research; it was art school, after all), I found that a fatwa was any official answer to a question put to a cleric on ‘how to be a good muslim’.

    I found that there were fatwas on whether a muslim could use mouthwash that contains alcohol or train in an Asian martial art that required bowing, etc. The fatwa against Mr. Rushdie was a twisted edict that to be a good muslim, you must kill him. Not every fatwa is a death threat.

    Again, I’m not a muslim, but I am a bit of stickler the use of words. Feel free to call me out if I am mistaken.

    (related: I found the Satanic Verses to have an interesting beginning, but it became very, very boring and pretty incoherent rather quickly)

  • @fiddler: So anyone who advocates political assassination should be exempt from visiting Australia? Should Henry Kissinger be barred? Should Richard Nixon (when he was alive)? How about President Obama who has ordered the due-process free assassination of a US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki?

    If political assassination advocacy is enough to get someone barred from going down under we’d see some interesting people being stopped.

    Mind you, this is the same Autralian immigration authorities that detained and harrassed the founder of wikileaks for holding information on the sites that the Australian government was trying to censor. So they’re hardly in a position to claim some kind of moral higher ground.

  • At least it would be consistent, Simon. Pro-censorship and all.
    I’m a bit conflicted on this one. On the one hand this is not like they are imprisoning him or depriving him of his rights. Travel between nations is a privilege extended by sovereigns. The sovereign can take it away.
    But seeing it as a punishment does bother me in that Yusuf has not been tied to any actual wrong-doing so it’s punishment for speech.
    Of course it’s advocacy of a crime, and despite the clever point, political assassination is not necessarily a crime.

  • Hitch

    I think we could have a long discussion about sovereignty and individual rights, but that would lead us pretty far astray.

    Incidentally I’m against all restrictions of Cat Stevens to travel.

    This is political gamesmanship. It only even exists because YI is a prominent figure. Hence there are points to be made.

    I think one does much better by arguing ones case rather than trying to arm-wrestle another by coercion into making statements or admissions.

    I think it’s wrong on principle. Do we really want political litmus tests for people who travel internationally? I don’t.

  • If Kavanagh is consistent, he should advocate for barring anyone that has condoned capital punishment, which I’m sure he isn’t prepared to do. Unfortunately, Cat/Yusuf is merely following the dictates of his religion, as do many people. The core we should focus on is the religion, not the specific followers that are only listening to authority figures and taking what they say seriously.

  • Vince,

    >>political assassination is not necessarily a crime.

    Even if this indeed true (something that is highly debatable at least with regards to the US), by the same token what Yusuf Islam said is not illegal either.

    What this Australian parliamentarian is asking for is completely ridiculous. Either you let someone in or you don’t based on some kind of legal framework that applies to all.

    You don’t arbitrarily start asking some visitors to sign disclaimers or loyalty oaths or whatever.

  • Cobblestone

    What this Australian parliamentarian is asking for is completely ridiculous. Either you let someone in or you don’t based on some kind of legal framework that applies to all.

    You don’t arbitrarily start asking some visitors to sign disclaimers or loyalty oaths or whatever.

    You’ve put it more concisely than I did. It’s easy to get lost in the specifics of who Stevens is, what he advocated, and all that. A free society is not going to restrict the travel of certain people for the things they say or the ideas they express. You honor the rights and privileges of even those whose views you find repugnant. If Stevens committed a crime, or conspired to commit a crime—then charge him! If not, then stop the grandstanding. I would have no problem if the Australian legislature simply did what most impotent legislatures do: Pass a resolution that says you condemn Cat Stevens and abhor the ideas he expressed. Done and done.

    Recall that President Ahmadinejaad has advocated for, among other things, the violent annihilation of Israel, not to mention the execution of gay people. Nonetheless, he was allowed a platform at Columbia University to give a speech. And what happened when he got there? He was roundly booed and ridiculed by a crowd who, for the most part, showed up to do exactly that. Cat Stevens is just going to sing some songs—and I’m sure there will be a contingent of Australians there who will jeer at him. Why deprive them of that opportunity?

  • FYI, “fatwa” =/ “death sentence” or suchlike. It just refers to an official order by a Muslim cleric, and most of them aren’t death sentences or other calls to violence.

    So while the existence of a death-sentence fatwa may indeed be taken as a tacit admission of being unable to defend Islam via logic or evidence, it’s a misconception that “fatwa” generally means that sort of thing.

  • Shatterface

    If a Muslim country required me to renounce my atheism before entry I wouldn’t go there. In return, I’d expect the same curtesy of those who support the murder of writers.

  • Dove

    Yusuf did NOT support the fatwa, IS a man of Peace, has not only said this more times than one can count, but he WORKS for his Peace and his beliefs, spending millions in each year in support of them.

    There are dozens of videos out there with him saying this over and over again. He addresses this repeatedly on his website, in interviews, and has for many years.

    This is yet one more case of whitey freaking out over Muslims. Why do the ignorant insist on citing rumor and bullshit as fact.

    Yusuf is a man of Peace, Islam is a religion of Peace.

    And no, I’m not a Muslim…I’m an Atheist, one who has followed Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam ‘s life and his music for nearly forty years.

    It would take a person all of 2 minutes with google to verify what I’m saying, but if you’d rather regurgitate hate speak for the sake of furthering further ignorance and hatred, just know that you will only garner further ignorance and hatred.

  • Hitch

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat_Stevens%27_comments_about_Salman_Rushdie

    “In Islam there is a line between let’s say freedom and the line which is then transgressed into immorality and irresponsibility and I think as far as this writer is concerned, unfortunately, he has been irresponsible with his freedom of speech. Salman Rushdie or indeed any writer who abuses the prophet, or indeed any prophet, under Islamic law, the sentence for that is actually death. It’s got to be seen as a deterrent, so that other people should not commit the same mistake again.”

    Later on BBC:

    ” Robertson: You don’t think that this man deserves to die?
    Y. Islam: Who, Salman Rushdie?
    Robertson: Yes.
    Y. Islam: Yes, yes.
    Robertson: And do you have a duty to be his executioner?
    Y. Islam: Uh, no, not necessarily, unless we were in an Islamic state and I was ordered by a judge or by the authority to carry out such an act – perhaps, yes.
    [Some minutes later, Robertson on the subject of a protest where an effigy of the author is to be burned]
    Robertson: Would you be part of that protest, Yusuf Islam, would you go to a demonstration where you knew that an effigy was going to be burned?
    Y. Islam: I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing

    The New York Times also reports this statement from the program: [If Rushdie turned up at my 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.”

    He later claimed it was a joke in poor taste and his web site claimed that he never supported the fatwa of Khomeini, very much in contrast to what he said earlier.


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