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Members of the Harvard Islamic community challenged controversial journalist Steven Emerson yesterday after a showing of his documentary on the militant Islamic presence in the U.S. last night.
More than 70 people filled the Law School's Langdell Hall for the second annual Alisa Flatow Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Jewish Law Students' Association (JLSA) to commemorate the Brandeis junior who died four years ago in a terrorist attack while visiting the Gaza Strip.
Emerson, a freelance journalist and former Wall Street Journal reporter, has received critical acclaim for his 1996 film "Jihad! In America."
"Eighty percent of American citizens attacked by terrorists have been at the hands of Islamic militants," Emerson said. "We have to recognize this reality."
Emerson's selection, however, angered students and faculty who believe his work supports and perpetuates stereotypes about Arabs and the religion of Islam.
In the past, Emerson has been accused of journalistic bias. During the question and answer session, he was questioned about his characterization of the Oklahoma City bombing.
"[The bombing] was done with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible. That's a Middle Eastern trait," he told CBS News in April of 1995.
The film showing was followed by a fiery question-and-answer session.
"I think that some people were hurt and offended about how he was given the platform at Harvard, because having spoken at Harvard tends to legitimize a speaker," said Sameera Fazili '00, president of the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS) and a Harvard Class Marshal.
The HIS began preparing to challenge Emerson long before the event, circulating an e-mail with suggested questions that urged members to keep their emotions in check.
The debate began before the event even started, as the HIS passed out photocopied flyers titled "The Truth about Islam in America" in anticipation of Emerson's interpretation of the word jihad.
During his lecture, Emerson explained the definition of jihad.
"Yes, jihad can have many definitions...but for the militants...jihad is a battlefront, a war that has to be fought with missiles, knives and bullets," Emerson said.
The flyers, however, suggested a very different definition.
"Its primary meaning, from the root word jhd, is to strive or exert oneself. . . . What is clear, though, is that striving in the right path involves foremost one's struggle to reorient one's own self to live according to how God would have His creation live," reads the statement prepared by HIS.
Emerson criticized the literature circulating among the audience, in particular a flyer listing controversial statements ascribed to the journalist.
"Militant Islam does not equal mainstream Islam," Emerson said. He went on to explain that this is a very important distinction and that those who attempt to slander him simply fail to appreciate this difference.
"Those who do not want this discussion are doing an incredible injustice to Islam," Emerson said.
Students were quick to criticize Emerson's film during the hour-long question-and-answer session.
"The way the film opens and closes is with Arabic, with Arabic chanting. Not translated, you come to perceive Arabic and Arabic chanting as a military activity," Fazili said.
Both Emerson and the students appreciated the question and answer time. Emerson said he was glad for an opportunity to clarify his views, while members of the Muslim community took advantage of the time to expose what they saw as a vast number of generalizations in both Emerson's film and statements.
In spite of a strong debate on an extremely sensitive issue, the event ended with hugs and laughter between members of the JLSA and members of the Muslim community.
"I am thankful they [JLSA] gave us the opportunity to get our viewpoints across," said Asifa B. Quaraishi, a doctoral candidate at the Law School.
"We are thankful for the lines of communication that this event has opened and we look forward to the opportunity to continue the dialogue," said Shoshana Lopatin a third-year law student and president of the JLSA.
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