Graduation Speech Title Sparks Concern

Yasin says ‘American Jihad’ address has no political message

The Faculty’s Standing Committee on Commencement Parts will meet today to discuss recent controversy over the planned speech by Zayed M. Yasin ’02 titled “American Jihad.”

The meeting comes a day after about a dozen students met in the Quincy House Junior Common Room to discuss protesting the speech because of the use of the word “Jihad” in the title.

“I’m concerned,” said Hilary L. Levey ’02, who organized the meeting. “I don’t know the content of the speech, but I think the use of the word ‘jihad’ in its context now has a lot of other meanings besides the religious meaning. When you say ‘jihad’ now you think of planes flying into a building.”

Levey said she has talked to many undergraduates, alumni and parents who are unhappy with the choice of the speech after the events of Sept. 11.

“It could be very painful to hear about that when you have people who have died in the name of jihad,” Levey said.

Yasin, a former president of the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS), said that his speech is not political and is meant to relate the original religious meaning of “jihad” to the road that seniors will face upon graduation.

“It’s a speech about the privileged opportunities and responsibilities we have as graduates...and about how these are enunciated in both the Islamic concept of jihad and in American ideals,” Yasin said.

“The idea is that we live in difficult and trying times and we will have to struggle both within ourselves to do the right thing and with very difficult problems that affect our communities,” he said.

Yasin said he is not surprised by the outcry that followed the announcement of his speech title.

“That is part of why I wrote this speech,” Yasin said. “Jihad is not something that should make someone feel uncomfortable. It’s a matter of other people deciding what they think jihad is and attributing to the word the product of their own imagination.”

While not surprised by the reaction, Yasin did say that he was surprised at the vehemence of the response.

“More disturbing is ad hominim attacks upon the work that I’ve done and on my personal life,” he said. “They’re very disappointing. I expected more from the Harvard community. I’m referring to people who have called me anti-Semite, to people who have said I support terrorism...All of these are untrue.”

University Marshal Richard M. Hunt said the speech does not deal with the Middle East at all and is “healing” and “non-confrontational.”

“It’s a speech that maybe has a title that misleads some people down some different paths,” Hunt said. “The students and the public when they hear this will be convinced.”

But David B. Adelman ’04 said he thinks the University should not have chosen such a contentious issue for one of the few Commencement speeches given by seniors.

“There’s a lot of very motivating ideas out there they could have chosen,” Adelman said. “Using such a contentious issue is unnecessary at this time.”