Rehab sounds like a pretty amazing place. Amy Winehouse sang about not wanting to go there, but anybody else who finds themself drowning from the weight of the baggage they drag with them seems able to go to this place, somewhere over the rainbow, and emerge happy, free and respectable again. And why not? To live free of demons is a great thing. They pay for it with their own reputation and their own money so they have every right to own the outcome.
I am a lot less persuaded by the kind of free-of-charge, memory-free rehabilitation that seems to come to some high-profile people regardless of their missteps and controversies, such is the rush to elevate them again to the position of eminent public figure. My ABC, curiously enough, appears to be engaged in the rehabilitation of former defence minister Peter Reith, by repeated engagements of him as a talking head on this or that political issue. His justly criticised role in the notorious Children Overboard affair – the dissemination of untruths and his failure to correct them – is conveniently overlooked.
The artist formerly known at Cat Stevens is another one to currently enjoy the public pleasures of short-term memory. His new stage show, Moonshadow, based on his songs and some aspects of his life, has been cheerfully embraced by the country’s arts writers as yet another great show to premiere in an Australian city. Now known as Yusuf Islam, his music has been described as being set to reach a new generation of fans too young to remember Tea for the Tillerman. I remember that record. I remember it well. But am I the only one who also still remembers Yusuf on that notorious episode of Geoffrey Robertson’s Hypotheticals on the fatwa declared on writer Salman Rushdie by the then Ayatollah Khomeini?
Asked by Robertson what he would do if Rushdie turned up at his door, Islam said “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.”
And there was this exchange in 1989:
Robertson: You don’t think that this man deserves to die?
Islam: Who, Salman Rushdie?
Islam: Yes, yes.
Robertson: And do you have a duty to be his executioner?
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 …
Robertson: Yusuf Islam, would you go to a demonstration where you knew that an effigy was going to be burnt?
Islam: I would have hoped that it’d be the real thing.
I remember feeling dumbstruck that this influential man was sanctioning murder on live television; I also remember with great admiration and affection that the writer Fay Weldon, who was also on the panel, asked for the police to arrest Islam as he was advocating an act of extreme violence.
Now, for years this was all we knew of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam: a man with a pretty good songbook and a series of extraordinarily offensive comments to his name. He tried to wriggle out of their clasp, by the usual weasel words – he was “taken out of context”, he had “foolishly made light of certain provocative questions”, but he also went on to claim that he never called for the death of Rushdie nor backed the fatwa – a denial that is utter rubbish.
Now he is in town, a gentle-looking éminence grise, and we all seem to forget that he was cold-bloodedly at the centre of one of the most dangerous and potentially murderous controversies of our time, that resulted in the loss of liberty and fearful life in hiding of one of the greatest writers of our age.
Yes, people can make mistakes and be rehabilitated. They can atone. They can do their time. But as far as I can tell, Islam hasn’t done this: in fact, he’s claimed it’s everybody else’s problem by denying the meaning of what he said. (For that matter, neither has Reith atoned: he says he was relying on advice given to him and simply refuses to acknowledge he did anything wrong.) Call me stubborn, but on that basis, I don’t forgive them. And I most certainly will never forget what they said.