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Of Free Speech, Jihad and Harvard Racism
Published on Saturday, June 1, 2002 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
Of Free Speech, Jihad and Harvard Racism
by Miro Cernetig
 

NEW YORK -- After receiving a death threat for his plan to give a Harvard University commencement speech entitled American Jihad, a Muslim-American student has agreed to censor his address, raising questions about free speech and racism at the elite U.S. university.

Zayed Yasin
Harvard University senior Zayed Yasin, who is scheduled to give the student's commencement speech on June 6, 2002, poses in Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Mass., Wednesday, May 29, 2002. Yasin has sparked controversy after his planned use of the term "jihad" in his speech. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
"I expected more from the Harvard community," Zayed Yasin, told the Harvard Crimson yesterday, the Ivy League university's student newspaper.

"I'm referring to people who have called me [an] anti-Semite, to people who have said I support terrorism. All of these are untrue."

The furor unfolding over whether Mr. Yasin should give his June 6 speech to 25,000 students and guests is the latest in a string of incidents in the United States that Muslim Americans and civil-liberties groups say is a trend toward impinging on individual freedoms in the wake of Sept. 11.

Some Muslim Americans have changed their names, to Christian-sounding ones, to escape discrimination. In recent weeks, concerns have mounted about racial profiling being used by law enforcement. Also, the mandate the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been expanded to carry out surveillance on mosques and other places of worship to try to root out terrorists.

But the clash at Harvard, which appears to have pitted Jewish students against Muslim students, has put the dilemma into stark relief.

Mr. Yasin, a 22-year-old biomedical engineering major from Chicago, was one of three students chosen for the commencement day honor. The text of his speech -- which has not been publicly released -- was screened and approved by faculty members. One Harvard official, Richard Hunt, described it as "healing" and "non-confrontational."

Harvard president Larry Summers also approved the speech, though he allowed the word jihad to be excised from the title and the address retitled Of Faith and Citizenship.

"Especially in 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," Mr. Summers urged in a statement.

"It's a speech about the privileged opportunities and responsibilities we have as graduates," Mr. Yasin said. "And about how these are enunciated in both the Islamic concept of jihad and American ideals. Some of this really smacks of censorship -- that goes against everything I believe both as an American and especially in the academic environment of Harvard."

But the nuances of his proposed address didn't make it through the almost-instant backlash to the use of the word jihad, which in the Islamic world means holy search or quest, but which has been used by Islamic fundamentalists to mean holy war.

"I'm concerned," said Hilary Levey, one of the student organizers of the campaign to kill Mr. Yasin's speech. "When you say jihad now you think of planes flying into a building. It could be very painful to hear about that when you have people who have died in the name of jihad."

Some Harvard students have also said that Mr. Yasin, a former president of the Harvard Islamic Society, is an inappropriate choice as a commencement day speaker because he was a former supporter of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development. The group describes itself as a humanitarian organization that gives aid to Palestinians, but the U.S. State Department recently alleged that it is linked to the terrorist group Hamas.

Beyond Harvard, people have seen the debate as a cautionary tale of the divisions that are opening up in American society as its war against terrorism stretches on.

"Our Muslim brothers and sisters, or people suspected of being Muslim, cannot go to a store, school or give a graduation speech without seismic paranoia erupting around them," Derrick Jackson, columnist for the Boston Globe, wrote yesterday, citing cases in the Boston area where Muslim men who were praying caused a panic that brought in a bomb squad.

"It is almost funny to witness the paranoia for Muslims or suspected Muslims who are [racially] profiled as they go about the business of praying, parenting and graduating," he wrote, "while Lucas Helder, a white, 21-year-old college student drove 3,400 miles across mid-America because no one suspected him as the man planting 18 pipe bombs in mailboxes."

© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc

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