It Really Is A “Wild World” When Cat Stevens Isn’t United States Worthy

I would imagine that Tom Ridge has had better days. His Homeland Security Department is already the object of some skepticism across the nation. It wasn’t exactly the ideal time for a major international flight from London to Washington D.C. to be diverted to Maine because a multi-platinum folk-rock star, who happened to be aboard, also happens to be on a terrorist watch list. Not that there is an ideal time for such a scenario, because, let’s face it, America likes Yusuf Islam, better known as Cat Stevens, much more than it does Tom Ridge. Maybe the secretary should take up guitar. Anyway, Stevens, Islam, Stephen Georgiou (his real name), or whatever moniker he uses tomorrow, sat in an airport in Bangor, Maine on Wednesday, answering questions for FBI officials. So just how does a significant figure in twentieth century popular music end up as a possible terrorist conspirator in the eyes of the U.S. government? Is Jessica Simpson next? Well, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to first question (or the second, I guess, but that’s not the point), which allows for quite a bit of intrigue. In case you are unfamiliar with Cat Stevens, before converting to Islam in the 1970’s and changing his name for a second time, he was among the world’s most famous folk-rock artists, his largest hit being “Wild World” (no, he did not sing “Cat’s In The Cradle,” Harry Chapin did). About a decade after he became a Muslim, Islam swore off popular music, claiming it was in conflict with the teachings of his religion. Over the past several decades, he has remained in the spotlight as an exceptionally vocal peace activist. According to the federal government, though, he might be an activist for not-so-peaceful activities as well. Islam’s name has found its way onto a watch list of citizens who might have relationships with terrorist organizations – relationships that Ridge, nor anyone else for that matter, wish to comment on. “Celebrity or unknown, our job is to act on information that others have given us,” Ridge commented after Islam had been sent back to his native Britain. But whatever this information is, apparently it’s substantial. An official in the Homeland Security Department said he was “extremely confident in the information.” The condemning information supposedly comes from an unnamed foreign source, which narrows it down to a few hundred possibilities. And even though the FBI and CIA have a strenuous relationship with one another, we can apparently rely on foreign informants. Islam is “shocked and slightly amused” that he is barred from U.S. grounds. With his name on such a list, he never should have been permitted to board the plane in the first place. Ridge blames United Airlines for ignoring the no-fly list, while the airline claims that Islam’s personal information did not match what was supplied on the list, causing the computer that performs the checks to overlook him. Islam was traveling with his daughter to Nashville to attend a recording session, but now is back in England while his daughter remains in the States. Okay, it’s kind of a long story, so thanks for sticking with me this long. Now, we must ask what to make of all this. Is Cat Stevens really in cahoots with terrorists? Is Tom Ridge trying to spin a public relations fiasco? Is “Wild World” poised for comeback due to publicity, a la “Tiny Dancer” after Almost Famous? My responses are: I have no earthly idea, it probably wouldn’t be the first time and by God, I sure hope so. We do know Islam is funding several Muslim charity organizations; he has founded three of them himself. Small Kindness offers humanitarian relief, Islamia Schools’ Trust ensures Muslim children in Britain a strong education within the ideals of their religion and Waqf al Birr Educational Trust endorses educational, scientific and medical research to help alleviate world poverty. All three are registered charities in the U.K. None of them seem to have an international menace feel to them, but you know folk singers, they have a way of shrouding meanings. Still, I find it hard to believe that one of the world’s foremost celebrity advocators of peace would also fund fundamentalists he consistently renounces. He does reside in Britain, so he obviously doesn’t repudiate Western cultures. In fact, Britain doesn’t have a problem with him being in their country, yet something about having him in America is threatening. Are we afraid of him inciting violence with his songs? Or crafting a weapon of mass destruction out of his acoustic guitar? As for poor Tom Ridge, I wonder what was happening in his cluttered mind. Maybe he really does know more than he can reveal. Maybe he is running the standard department defense rhetoric. Or maybe he was thinking, “Cat Stevens!? Damn it! Let’s go after Bob Dylan too and really secure the public’s favor. Why did I ever take this job in the first place?” I do have some sympathy for the man, though. He was thrust into the impossibly difficult situation of protecting the nation from terrorism and only makes the newspapers when his department does something like temporarily detaining a celebrity. I think this ordeal has reiterated an important lesson: mixing pop culture, the mass media and government investigations does not yield good results. I thought we got this out of the way with McCarthyism. I’m not suggesting Tom Ridge is Joe McCarthy (he’s not) and terrorism is far more dangerous than communism. Nonetheless, Americans don’t like their cultural benchmarks being attacked, even if it is, in theory, for their own good. Politicians can smear each other and avoid the issues all they want, but doggone it, they better eat hot dogs, they better go to baseball games and they better appreciate folk music. Not doing so is…just blasphemous. Hopefully, this Cat Stevens mess is behind us. Hopefully, he can go back to recording children’s albums and preaching the peacefulness of Islam. Hopefully, his charities continue to supply the impoverished of the world a little more hope. Hopefully, Tom Ridge and the Homeland Security Department land back on their feet. But, if not, there is still something to take solace in. Cat Stevens is “one of (his) favorite artists.” Oh good. You really solved everything there, Tom.