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.

"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.

"I was invited to an Orthodox Shabat service at the Harvard Hillel and it was, it was a wonderful service to see how people celebrate and take joy in their religion and at the same time it shows us a lot of sadness to think that according to some on both sides that this kind of communication isn't supposed to happen, this kind of understanding isn't supposed to happen. So it's, I really, I pray for peace and I pray that people will have the ability and the patience to sit down to talk with each other to understand each other and to give of themselves so that both of their communities can be at peace," Yasin said.

For Harvard's class of 2002, Thursday will mark the end of four years of hard work and gratifying growth. For some of the graduates, the difficult considerations that rocked their commencement week are just beginning.