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Jihad Comes to Harvard

Jihad Comes to Harvard

3 Mins
March 31, 2010

June 12, 2002 -- In my Harvard University apartment, overlooking the serene Charles River, I grieve for the Israelis who were murdered last week by the Islamic Jihad, and I grieve for students at Harvard whose final lesson before graduating was about the noble meaning of Jihad.

Zayed Yasin, a graduating senior, was selected to address thousands of students and their families about the virtue of Jihad as a moral struggle. While the word “Jihad,” in some contexts, could mean an internal struggle, the focus on this meaning at the commencement speech diverts attention from Sudanese Muslims who murder and enslave Christians in Southern Sudan, from the indiscriminate murder of shoppers and dancers, and from those who fly planes into buildings—all in the name of Jihad.

The commencement speech at Harvard should have helped graduating students differentiate between right and wrong; instead, they were exposed to ambiguity and doublespeak. They should have left this institution with the kind of moral clarity that leads to resolve; instead, they left confused and uncertain about what or whom to support. Evil triumphs while good men and women are distracted by verbal obfuscation.

Harvard, and Harvard alone, is to blame for the harm that this speech inflicted. Mr. Yasin, putting aside for a moment allegations that he has raised funds for an organization that supports terrorism, might be trying to promote a more peaceful form of Islam. The problem is that he is being used as a pawn by the same people who send suicide murderers to blow up innocents. Moreover, he is being used by Harvard University to promote its postmodern philosophy of ethical ambiguity and moral relativism.

I have been at Harvard for eight years, first as an undergraduate studying Philosophy and Psychology, and now as a graduate student studying Organizational Behavior. I care deeply about, and am grateful to, this wonderful place of learning; and it is because I value Harvard so much that the choice of commencement speech disheartens and disappoints me. At the same time, the choice does not surprise me.

The most consistent message that I have heard from professors and students is that everything is relative; reality is a personal, cultural construct, and therefore there is no way to distinguish between right and wrong, moral and immoral. I believed that following the attack on America, students and professors would recognize that some wrongs are absolutely wrong—that, at least in some cases, there is no moral ambiguity. As is evident by the choice of graduation speech, however, the reality of thousands dying in the hallways of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has not penetrated the fortified, detached hallways of the ivory towers.

The semantic argument about a word allows Muslim leaders to hide behind the alternative meaning of “Jihad” rather than to denounce, and act against, the murder of "infidels." The central issue that must be dealt with is not the misappropriation of a word, but the overwhelming support of Muslims around the world for the form of Jihad that is synonymous with murder. And while Muslim leaders plead for understanding that “Jihad” really does mean an internal struggle, they themselves refuse to categorically condemn suicide murders of civilians—as we saw in this year's Organization of the Islamic Conference in Kuala Lumpur.

In a world in which the only superpower supports life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, those who perpetuate death, oppression, and suffering cannot survive without obscuring their message. They must revert to rhetorical ploys if they, and their ideologies, are to survive. They do it with the help of intellectuals who appear on CNN and ABC, and who give commencement speeches at leading universities.

Providing the center stage on graduation day to American Jihad is not, as some have argued, about free speech. Rather, it is about forcing a captive audience to listen to a speech that makes a mockery of the war that the United States is fighting—captive students who want to attend their own graduation ceremony after years of hard work, captive parents who want to see their children take their next step forward.

Harvard's choice of a commencement speech is not only insensitive to those who lost loved ones in the name of Jihad—some of whom are graduating this year—it also undermines the fight against Islamic fundamentalism. It is about time that this university, with so much potential to do good, took its head out of the sand and began to evaluate the kind of causes that it supports. A disproportionate number of the world's leaders come out of this institution—and these leaders must learn that good is good, that evil is evil, and that Jihad is Jihad.

Tal Ben-Shahar
About the author:
Tal Ben-Shahar
Foreign Affairs