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Its Title May Be Altered, but Speech by Muslim Student Stirs Controversy

June 5, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

What’s in a name?

According to some Jewish students at Harvard University, quite a bit.

Harvard senior Zayed Yasin was slated to address the college’s June 6 graduation ceremony with his newly titled speech, “Of Faith and Citizenship.”

The original title of his address, “Of Faith and Citizenship: My American Jihad,” caused a campus uproar and gained national attention when it was announced a week ago.

Whether or not the speech causes any controversy when it is given, the pre-speech furor indicates some of the campus tensions over issues related to the Middle East.

Yasin, 22, the former president of the Harvard Islamic Society, was chosen by a faculty panel to be one of three student speakers to give an address at the upcoming commencement.

His speech, in which only the title has been changed, refers to the term jihad as a personal struggle for finding one’s self.

In the Islamic tradition, the term has many meanings. Jihad generally has been translated in the West as “Islamic holy war” — and sensitivities to its usage have significantly increased since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Yasin changed the title of his speech after a grass-roots campaign was launched on campus.

Hilary Levey, a senior sociology major, along with over 3,500 others, has signed a petition calling for Yasin to condemn “violence in the name of jihad.”

“I was so shocked,” when she heard of the speech’s original title, Levey said. “I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach.

“When you think of jihad, you think of planes flying into a building,” she added in a statement to the Harvard Crimson.

Allowing Yasin “to speak at the commencement is appalling,” said the parent of one graduating senior who asked not to be identified. “His speech makes graduates feel uncomfortable and uneasy at a time when they are supposed to be jubilant.”

Michael Shinagel, one of the university deans who judged the commencement oration competition, defended his panel’s decision in The New York Times.

“His ‘jihad,’ like ours, is to promote justice and understanding in ourselves and in our society. The audience will find his oration a light of hope and reason in a world often darkened by distrust and conflict,” Shinagel said.

The chair of the panel that chose student commencement speakers is Richard Thomas, an active supporter of the effort by Harvard and M.I.T. faculty calling for divestment from Israel.

Responding to the pro-divestment faculty petition, 4,000 Harvard and MIT faculty, students and staff have signed a counterpetition calling the divestment effort “a one-sided attempt to delegitimize Israel.”

The controversy surrounding Yasin, however, is deeper than the title of his speech. As president of the school’s Islamic society, he raised money for the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation — a charity that the U.S. Treasury Department has listed as a supporter of Hamas. The Treasury Department siezed the group’s assets last December.

In an interview with the Harvard Crimson last December, Yasin said the Holy Land Foundation was justified in supporting the widows and orphans of Palestinian suicide bombers.

“I think that this attempt, to criminalize the care of widows and orphans, is a very underhanded way of pursuing a political agenda and that it is absolutely unconscionable to attack an organization that takes care of the poor, the sick because you disagree with the causes that may have contributed to these people’s destitution,” Yasin was quoted as saying.

In a recent editorial, New York Daily News columnist Zev Chafets compared the Holy Land Foundation to the Ku Klux Klan, and wrote of the chaos that would be caused if a speaker addressed the commencement with a speech entitled, “American Cross Burning.”

Yasin told the Crimson that the Holy Land Foundation is getting a bad rap, and that he personally had witnessed the organization’s “professionalism, and dedication to helping people.”

In Chafets’ hypothetical scenario, “the orator assures his critics that the Klan and its supporters do a lot of good. Why, he himself has witnessed the humanity and compassion of organizations that fund the KKK.”

“Harvard’s ‘American Jihad’ speech, whatever its content, is a calculated slap at the university’s Jews,” Chafets wrote. “Yasin, of course, has the right to deliver it. But the members of the class of ’02 who don’t care for Jew-baiting have the right to get up and walk out.”

In a statement issued last week, Harvard President Lawrence Summers said, “We live in times when, understandably, many people at Harvard and beyond are apprehensive about events in the Middle East and possible reverberations in American life. Yet, especially in a university, it is important for people to keep open minds, listen carefully to one another and react to the totality of what each speaker has to say.”

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