Yasin Delivers Heavily Debated ‘Jihad’ Speech

Handful of students protest with pins, while others bring loud applause

After more than a week of controversy about the title and substance of his Senior English Address, Zayed M. Yasin ’02 delivered a speech about personal “jihad” uneventfully at Harvard’s June 6 Commencement ceremonies.

In his speech, retitled “Of Faith and Citizenship,” Yasin spoke about the perceived contradiction between his Muslim faith and his American citizenship.

“I am one of you, but I am also one of them,” Yasin said. “When I’m told this is a world at war...I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

But he concluded that his belief in Islam and American patriotism were not incompatible.

He also attempted to redefine the meaning of jihad from a violent struggle to a process of personal growth.

He defined the true meaning of jihad as “the determination to do right and justice even against your personal interests” and urged seniors to look at their lives after graduation as this kind of personal jihad.

“Harvard graduates have a responsibility to leave their mark on the world,” Yasin said. “I pray...that we will be the change we seek in this world.”

Yasin said that jihad is a broad struggle for control. “On a global scale, [jihad] is a struggle...for control of the Big Decisions: not only who controls what piece of land, but more importantly who gets medicine, who can eat.”

A handful of students protested the speech prior to Commencement, handing out hundreds of red, white and blue pins. They also distributed leaflets highlighting the violent associations with jihad and comparing Yasin’s public statements in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to patriotic quotations from President Bush.

Zev Frankel, who graduated from Harvard Medical School today and handed out fliers just outside the Yard, said he thought the subject of jihad was an inappropriate topic for Commencement because of its painful association to violence.

“In the current climate where there have been many victims of jihad, I think it’s disingenuous to talk about it in this rosy, happy way,” Frankel said. Yasin is “only saying half of the story.”

In contrast, Harvard Students for Israel released a statement the day before Commencement saying its members did not endorse the protesters’ petition, saying they were assured Yasin’s speech was of “a personal and spiritual nature, not a political one.”

“We have no reason to doubt Mr. Yasin’s assurances, and expect his speech to be positive and enlightening,” the statement read. “At this point, we are interested in what Mr. Yasin has to say, and we hope that his speech will provide a starting point for open and informed discussions of the issues associated with the word jihad.”

Both the introduction of Yasin’s speech and its conclusion provoked loud applause in the audience—and even a partial standing ovation.

Some graduating seniors said they felt the speech was much less controversial than they had expected. Alyssa M. Varley ’02 said that while she thought the speech’s initial title—“American Jihad”—was “unnecessarily controversial,” she thought his message was worthwhile.

“After hearing the speech, I think it’s awful they protested him,” Varley said. “They should have given him the benefit of the doubt, which is what I did.”

Today’s address followed nearly two weeks of controversy. When the speech was originally announced under the “American Jihad” title, a group of about 15 students met with Michael Shinagel, dean of the Extension School and a member of the committee that chose Commencement Day speakers, arguing that the speech did not explicitly condemn the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a violent form of jihad.

The full text of Yasin’s speech can be read online at www.fas.harvard.edu/~yasin/speech.html

—Staff writer Anne K. Kofol can be reached at kofol@fas.harvard.edu.