Harvard Jihad Speech Controversy

Sheila Musaji

Posted Jul 2, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Harvard Jihad Speech Controversy

by Sheila Musaji

Harvard University senior Zayed Yasin titled his graduation speech ‘‘The American Jihad’’ and before you could say Harvard Yard, all hell broke loose.  Before the speech was even heard, the student received a death threat.  According to Patrick Healey, “Yasin, a 22-year-old native of Scituate, said he simply wants to reclaim the positive definition of jihad, which can mean a spiritual struggle in addition to the more familiar meaning, holy war.    ‘‘In the Muslim tradition, jihad represents a struggle to do the right thing,’’ he said. ‘‘This is not a speech about jihad as war, or 9/11, or Israel and Palestine, or politics. I want to use the idea of struggle to say that we, as graduating seniors from Harvard, who have been incredibly blessed, have a duty and responsibility to the world to struggle against injustices, and to struggle for social justice.’‘  Alan Dershowitz thought that the title was deliberately provocative and meant to elicit a negative response. 

Under pressure the student changed the title of the speech to ‘‘Of Faith and Citizenship’‘, but the content remained the same.  Here is the text of the speech and you can judge for yourself if this deserved to be made into a cause celebre:

I am one of you. But I am also one of “them.” What do I mean? When I am told that this is a world at war, a war between the great civilizations and religions of the earth, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. “What about me?” I ask. As a practicing Muslim and a registered voter in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, am I, through the combination of my faith and my citizenship, an inherent contradiction?
I think not. Both the Qu’ran and the Constitution teach ideals of peace, justice and compassion, ideals that command my love, and my belief. Each of these texts, one the heart of my religion, the other that of my country, demand a constant struggle to do what is right.

I choose the word “struggle” very deliberately, for its connotations of turmoil and tribulation, both internal and external. The word for struggle in Arabic, in the language of my faith, is jihad. It is a word that has been corrupted and misinterpreted, both by those who do and do not claim to be Muslims, and we saw last fall, to our great national and personal loss, the results of this corruption. Jihad, in its truest and purest form, the form to which all Muslims aspire, is the determination to do right, to do justice even against your own interests. It is an individual struggle for personal moral behavior. Especially today, it is a struggle that exists on many levels: self-purification and awareness, public service and social justice. On a global scale, it is a struggle involving people of all ages, colors, and creeds, for control of the Big Decisions: not only who controls what piece of land, but more importantly who gets medicine, who can eat.

So where is our jihad, where is our struggle as we move on from Harvard’s sheltering wall? Worthy adversaries are innumerable. We can turn our struggle to the war against oppression, poverty, disease…But before looking outward, we must first look inward. Before deciding what we are against, we must decide what we are for. The only way to define the inner moral force that drives our struggle is to learn through action—to get our hands dirty. To strive to see the world as it sees itself, testing the boundaries of what we think we know, and how we know it. To combine our academic search for truth with a sense of empathy for our fellow humanity—to seek Veritas in Humanitas.

On one level it’s simple: everyone wants the same things that we do. The true American Dream is a universal dream, and it is more than a set of materialistic aspirations. It is the power and opportunity to shape one’s own life: to house and feed a family with security and dignity, and to practice your faith in peace. This is our American Jihad.

As a Muslim, and as an American, I am commanded to stand up for the protection of life and liberty, to serve the poor and the weak, to celebrate the diversity of humankind. There is no contradiction. Not for me, and not for anyone, of any combination of faith, culture and nationality, who believes in a community of the human spirit.

Some of this is a mantra that has been spoken at myriad graduations. Worth repeating, perhaps, but nothing new. What is new was taught us by last fall’s tragedy and carnage. The status quo is shattered, and we have now been forced to engage more closely the troubles of this world. We are in a privileged position to shape a more just, peaceful, and honorable global society.

So I ask again: where is our jihad? Whether on our way to an investment bank in New York, or to Sierra Leone to work with orphans, Harvard graduates have a responsibility to leave their mark on the world. So let us struggle, and let us make our mark. And I hope and pray that our children, our grandchildren, and those who take our seats in the years to come, will have cause to be proud.

UPDATE January 2005

An article by Janet Tassel in the Harvard magazine notes that

The news that senior Zayed Yasin had been chosen to deliver a Commencement address entitled “My American Jihad” barely nine months after September 11 prompted Pipes to write: “Imagine it’s June 1942, soon after Hitler declared war on us. At Harvard University, a faculty committee has chosen a German-American to give one of three student orations at the festive commencement ceremony. He titles it ‘American Kampf,’ purposefully echoing the title of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf (‘My Struggle’) in order to show the positive side of ‘Kampf.’“__Indeed, the purpose of the speech, according to Yasin, a past president of the Harvard Islamic Society, was to “reclaim the word for its true meaning, which is ‘inner struggle.’” In his address, he said,__

Jihad, in its truest and purest form, the form to which all Muslims aspire, is the determination to do right, to do justice even against your own interests. It is an individual struggle for personal moral behavior. Especially today, it is a struggle that exists on many levels: self-purification and awareness, public service, and social justice.

__This was altogether too much for Pipes, though he blamed the student less than the faculty. In a scathing article for Commentary, “Jihad and the Professors,” he reported that a survey he made of media comments by some two dozen academics had turned up definitions ranging from “a struggle against our own myopia and neglect” to “resisting apartheid or working for women’s rights.” For example, he quoted David Mitten, Loeb professor of classical art and archaeology, a convert to Islam and faculty adviser to the Harvard Islamic Society, as saying that true jihad is “the constant struggle of Muslims to conquer their inner base instincts, to follow the path to God, and to do good in society.” Three years later, Mitten says, “Sure. I’ll stand by that quote. This is what is called greater jihad, dating to the eleventh century, and is superior to lesser or militaristic jihad, extracted by Osama and Zarqawi for their own dastardly purposes. We knew Zayid’s speech would be controversial; the word is inflammatory, but he wanted people to understand the real meaning of greater jihad.“__"But of course,” Pipes erupted in his article, “it is precisely bin Laden, Islamic Jihad, and the jihadists worldwide who define the term, not a covey of academic apologists. More importantly, the way the jihadists understand the term is in keeping with its usage through fourteen centuries of Islamic history.“__And that definition, he continued, to the majority of Muslims meant, and means, “the legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims (known in Arabic as dar al-Islam) at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims (dar al-harb).” Khaleel Mohammed agrees. “The normative meaning has become war—whether expansionist or defensive,” he writes. “The academic professors at Harvard, et cetera, often confuse their Islamica and their political thought.” Tashbih Sayyed goes even further: “When the apologists talk about greater jihad or lesser jihad, they are basically playing with words. If it is so and jihad is good deeds or good thoughts, then why do they never call their thinkers mujahadin, holy warriors? Why are only those people who wage war with swords and behead non-Muslims glorified as mujahadin?“__Pipes does acknowledge the concept of greater or higher jihad, which he says is usually associated with Sufism and with the reformist approach to Islam that “reinterpret[s] Islam to make it compatible with Western ways.” But he calls this approach “wholly apologetic,” owing “far more to Western than to Islamic thinking.”

_____HARVARD JIHAD SPEECH CONTROVERSY _- Harvard Jihad Foes Overdid It, Max Gross, [url=http://www.beliefnet.com/story/107/story_10726_1.html]http://www.beliefnet.com/story/107/story_10726_1.html
- Of Free Speech, Jihad and Harvard Racism, by Miro Cernetig http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0601-02.htm
- A Word Sparks a Battle, Patrick Healy http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0529-02.htm
- Daniel Pipes on controversy http://www.danielpipes.org/article/419
- Harvard Student Drops ‘Jihad’ From Speech Title, Kate Zernike http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/01/us/harvard-student-drops-jihad-from-speech-title.html
- My American Jihad, Zayed Yasin http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Islam/2002/06/My-American-Jihad.aspx