Controversy Swirls Around Harvard Commencement

"There's no justification for walking into a market or for killing women and children. You can't, you explicitly cannot do that in Islam," Yasin said. But when the question of suicide bombers who take action against military encampments or positions, the answer is uncertain. "That is a very difficult moral question and it's not one that I can give you. I will be honest with you, I don't know, myself, there. I can see arguments on both sides."

None of these political judgments are part of Yasin's speech. But that is immaterial to his critics. To them, his defense of the word "jihad" is already too much.

"It's like having a speaker, you know, from the Ku Klux Klan who wants to give a speech about cross burnings and says that the real meaning of cross burning is building Christianity or some such nonsense," said Zev Chafetz, a Harvard student.

The "jihad" controversy is now big news, not just at the Harvard Crimson, but at big-city newspapers and cable news programs around the country.

Yasin's response to the attention: "It seems a little McCarthyist."

Campus Controversy

Back on campus, Yasin was amazed at the controversy and angered by demands he saw as infringements on his First Amendment rights.

"The idea that I would have to have a rubber stamp on it from whatever authority or from whatever individuals, that my speech is American enough, that I am American enough," Ysain said. "This is not freedom of speech, and this is not dialogue, as I understand it."

But Hilary Levey is undeterred. "What we're planning to do right now is to distribute information about why we're upset about the speech. And attached to that sheet are red, white and blue ribbons that people can wear as a silent protest to the speech itself."

Other Harvard students offered a range of opinion:

"I think it's impossible, in a post-September 11th world, to say the word "jihad" is non-political," said Benjamin Galper, who is Jewish.

"I think the speech itself, it's inspirational. It's motivational ... But I think he does know that, when you use a word like 'jihad,' an emotive word like that, it's going to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people," said Nader Hasan, who is Muslim.

Ask the students their first association when they heard the word jihad and you get radically similar answers.

"What I think of, and what comes to mind are thoughts of suicide bombings in the Middle East, or planes hitting the World Trade Center," said Christopher Pierce, who is Catholic.

"This word has so been appropriated by so many different people who don't really use it the way that it originally has been used in Islamic tradition. And so, I feel this extreme sense of sadness that my religion, my traditions, my beliefs have been taken over by people hijacked, and thrown into a plane, and then into the World Trade Center," said Saif Shah Mohammed, who is Muslim.

Nader Hassan continued. "Well, I, myself, am Muslim. So, I understand the original meaning of the term 'jihad' as a spiritual struggle to do the right thing. But I'm also an American, and I live here. And I know that jihad has been appropriated by many people. So I also think about the falling twin towers when I hear the word. But that's why a speech like this, to me, seems like it's very important, like we need it."

Zayed Yasin isn't backing down. He says forcing people to open their minds to several meanings of "jihad" may be forcing some of them to open their hearts as well.

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