Controversy Swirls Around Harvard Commencement

William Shakespeare once asked: "What's in a name?" Zayed Yasin found, in his own name, and his Muslim religion, a burden: of doubt, about his patriotism and about his character.

"I'm confronted with the assumptions that because of my name I came from some other country, that I'm a foreign student, that I'm not American or, if I am American, that I'm not as good an American or as true an American or as trustworthy an American as someone named Joe Smith, and that's something that is, that I resent very much," the graduating Harvard University senior said.

So Yasin, a former president of the Harvard Islamic students society, proposed an oration for Thursday's commencement ceremony that might clear away some of these questions.

"First, I wanted to talk about the unity between Islamic and American values," Yasin said. " I also wanted to try to reclaim the word 'jihad' from the way it's been misused and abused."

Yasin read part of his speech. The word for struggle in Arabic, in the language of my faith, is jihad. It is a word that has been corrupted and misinterpreted, both by those who do and do not claim to be Muslims, and we saw last fall, to our great national and personal loss, the results of this corruption.

Harvard's faculty committee on commencement orations liked Yasin's proposal, and named him one of three speakers for graduation day.

His speech was called: "My American Jihad." Jihad, in its truest and purest form, the form to which all Muslims aspire, is the determination to do right, to do justice even against your own interests.

"It appealed because it began with a personal perspective of a Muslim-American, questioning whether he fit as an American, and as a Muslim. And then expanded that out to include all of us in terms of the struggle it promotes and it urges on all of us," said Richard Thomas, a Harvard professor and chairman of the commencement committee.

Looking for Condemnation

At the Harvard Crimson, the school newspaper, the selection of the commencement speakers and their topics was news, but hardly front-page news.

"When we published that article, we actually didn't have too much about any sort of controversy or backlash in that first piece, explaining what his speech [was] going to be about, his thoughts on what he was going to discuss," said Crimson President Imtiaz Delawala.

Hilary Levey, also a graduating Harvard senior, saw the Crimson's report, and noticed Zayed Yasin's topic: jihad. She had a question for university leaders.

"'Could you tell us if there is an explicit condemnation of violent jihad or the invocation of jihad for terrorist purposes or by organizations that support terrorists?' We were informed that there was not an explicit condemnation of terror or violent jihad," Levey said.

Levey didn't get the answer she was hoping for, so she opened up her computer and linked up to friends online, starting a petition demanding input into Yasin's remarks.

"And since then, we've received almost 3,600 signatures on that petition, calling for Mr. Yasin to include an explicit condemnation of terrorism motivated by jihad, of all aspects of violent jihad," Levey said.

The demand is much farther than Yasin is willing to go. He does condemn suicide bombers attacking civilian targets.

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