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John Harvard's Journal | Commencement 2002

Free Speech: Testing

July-August 2002

So often was he grilled by the press in the days before he delivered his controversial address, that Zayed M. Yasin '02 prepared a handout of frequently asked questions and responses. Nightline had devoted a segment to the upcoming speech, and Yasin had been on the Today show. One TV talk-show host reportedly called him "a kid known to have been a fundraiser for Hamas." Yasin had the FAQ sheet with him at a press conference at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge held soon after he spoke. He wore pinned to his academic gown one of the red, white, and blue ribbons passed out earlier by those protesting what they thought Yasin would say. "I expected the speech to raise a couple of eyebrows," he said, "but didn't expect anything like this level of response—or how personal and vitriolic it became."

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"I was all set to give a speech today entitled 'American Jihad,'" said humorist Al Franken '73 (above, left), the seniors' guest speaker at Class Day. "But after receiving several complaints, I've decided instead to give a less controversial speech entitled 'The Case for Profiling Young Arab Men.'" Former U.S. Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell, Democrat of Maine (above, right), spoke at the Kennedy School. "There is no such thing," he said, "as a conflict that can't be ended."
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Simon Schama (above, left), a former Harvard historian now at Columbia, orated at Phi Beta Kappa on "The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Ozzy Osbourne," exploring the role of rhetoric in stitching together community. Compared to a functioning democratic polity, where "the power of eloquence presupposed the freedom to be persuaded," he said, "terror is—in every sense—dumb." Charles Wright, professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, read his poem "Homage to Mark Rothko," about ambition. In preamble he noted, "I know that ambition is the middle name of every one of you here"—and then cautioned about its limits, and warned that ambition is a "hard road, and you've got to have a good pair of shoes."
Jim Harrison

Yasin had competed for the chance to deliver one of three student "parts" during the formal Commencement exercises. He won the spot in April by delivering to a committee of six judges—faculty members and administrators —the speech he proposed to give.

Yasin, 22, is a Muslim American, the son of a Bangladeshi father and Irish-American mother, who grew up in Scituate, Massachusetts. A member of Leverett House, he was a biomedical engineering concentrator and the former president of the Harvard Islamic Society. In his Commencement remarks, he meant to exhort his privileged classmates to fight against social injustice. He invoked the venerable Muslim concept of jihad —reclaiming the word from those who use it only to mean "holy war"—to describe a personal struggle to do the right thing, to perfect one's own morality.

At first he titled his talk "Of Faith and Citizenship: My American Jihad," but Michael Shinagel, dean of continuing education and one of the judges who chose Yasin, later suggested that something punchier would be better. Yasin shortened the title to "American Jihad."

When the names of the student orators and the title of Yasin's speech were released, a hullabaloo ensued. The term jihad, critics said, is employed by Islamic fundamentalists to justify terrorism. He began to receive hate mail, including an e-mailed death threat.

"[I]n a university setting, 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," President Lawrence H. Summers said in a statement. "Direct personal threats are reprehensible...."

In a Crimson opinion piece, Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan '02 called Summers's statement "lukewarm," and quoted Leverett House master Howard Georgi as saying, "I believe that not only threats but also personal attacks on Zayed's character are reprehensible, and have no place in the community of scholars....We should wait for Commencement and find out what he has to say."

After negotiations with upset students, Yasin agreed that the Commencement program should show the speech's title as "Of Faith and Citizenship," and he said he would add to his remarks a sentence condemning violence in the name of jihad.

A self-styled "Group of Concerned Students" circulated a handout, written by Patrick M. Collins, M.B.A. '02, and Hilary L. Levey '02, calling for Harvard either to replace Yasin with a more appropriate speaker or "have him give a speech on a less divisive topic." Saying that they "in no way challenge Mr. Yasin's right to free speech," they nevertheless called upon Harvard "to insist that the speech include a full condemnation of terrorism, violent jihad, and all organizations that directly or indirectly support terrorism anywhere in the world." They urged people to sign an on-line petition opposing the choice of Yasin to deliver his intended speech. By Commencement eve, reportedly, more than 5,000 students, faculty, alumni, parents, and others had signed the petition.