Student Protesting the War in Gaza outside of Columbia University

(Image Source: Getty Images/Spencer Platt)

Fanning the Flames: How Western Media Fuels Islamophobia in Coverage of Pro-Palestine Campus Protests

Published on 22 May 2024

It has been over seven months since Israel began its latest bombardment of the Gaza strip, a tiny strip of land that it has occupied for decades. The area is home to 2 million Palestinians, nearly half of whom are children. Since October 7th, 2023, Israel has killed over 36,000 Palestinians, including more than 15,000 children.

Israel’s most recent onslaught of the occupied territory occurred following a surprise attack by the militant wing of Hamas, the political entity that controls Gaza. As a result of the attack, an estimated 1,139 Israelis were killed and around 200 were held hostage. Currently, there are 129 Israeli hostages in Gaza. 

Over the past seven months, western political and media discourse on the genocide has exposed the blatant double standards and anti-Palestinian biases within these institutions. Western media coverage of Israel’s genocide in Gaza has often included Islamophobic tropes. These include the claims that 1) all Palestinians are Hamas, 2) All in support of Palestine are potential “terrorists”’/”extremists,” and 3) all voices in support of Palestinian human rights are antisemitic. 

Israeli military aggression and daily bombings (bombing that has been more intense than even WWII) are justified under the guise of “self-defense,” despite the fact that under international law, Israel cannot claim self-defense from a territory it occupies. Additionally, while the families of Israeli hostages receive consistent airtime, Palestinian voices are frequently ignored and erased by Western media outlets. Furthermore, the media’s framing of this conflict using the ‘war on terror’ narrative—where the occupied people are labeled as ‘terrorists’—instead of recognizing it as an issue of settler-colonialism and Palestinian self-determination, unjustly targets all Palestinians.

In response to Israel’s genocide in Gaza and the US government’s complicity in the mass murder of tens of thousands of Palestinians, American university students have embarked on an anti-war movement echoing that of the Vietnam era. Beginning at Columbia University, students established Palestine solidarity encampments on college campuses across the US calling on their respective administrations to divest from Israel. The protests have also expanded to universities across the globe in support of the rights of Palestinians and an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. 

In the US, many of the school’s administrations have responded to protests in an authoritarian manner, calling in law enforcement to violently suppress them. Videos from these events reveal intense police brutality targeting students and faculty. As a result, many students and faculty have been hospitalized for injuries, including broken ribs

In one instance in April 2024 at the Univesrity of Californa, Los Angeles, pro-Israel supporters including several far-right activists and white nationalists, launched a late night attack on the peaceful pro-Palestine encampment on campus, including violently assaulting protesters with sticks and weapons, shooting fireworks at the encampment, and using pepper spray, all the while police officers stood by and did nothing for hours. Over 30 individuals were injured. When law enforcement responded, it only arrested the pro-Palestine student protesters and faculty. 

The actions of University administrations raise serious questions about their commitment to free speech. Further such violence against peaceful protesters is grounds for legal action as these attacks violate the institutions’ obligations to protect the welfare of their students and staff.

Coverage of these pro-Palestine protests from both the media and political sectors has heavily promoted Islamophobic tropes. This has been done by 1) labeling all participants as “terrorists,” “extremists” or “Pro-Hamas,” and 2) claiming that those calling for an end to the genocide are motivated by antisemitism. In addition to engaging in Islamophobia, these voices have largely remained silent on the the surge in anti-Muslim harassment and violence targeting student protesters as well as the wider American Muslim community. 

Throughout mainstream media and among pro-Israel supporters, the prevailing narrative has been that these protests consist of “pro-Hamas” supporters who are “extremists,” and “terrorists,” accusations that are rooted in Islamophobia. Despite the Israel-Palestine issue fundamentally revolving around self-determination and human rights, pro-Israel supporters and elements within Western media and political circles have framed it as a religious conflict: Jews versus Muslims. Despite protesters being from all backgrounds (including Jewish students), the narrative has been that these are largely Muslim groups rallying for a Muslim cause, and therefore warrant the “extremist,” and/or “pro-Hamas” label. This dangerous smear is Islamophobic and seeks to delegitimize the anti-genocide efforts of these students. It also puts them in harm’s way. 

Government officials are characterizing students exercising their First Amendment rights as “terrorists” in order to criminalize and suppress dissent. Portraying the protesters as “terrorists” is a tactic drawn from the War on Terror (WoT) playbook, which entails constructing Muslims, particularly those who are politically vocal and active, as terrorists. Recently, Senators Roger Marshall and Marsha Blackburn introduced legislation describing student protesters as “Hamas sympathizers” and “terrorist agitators,” and pushed for them to be placed on the FBI’s No-Fly list, another hallmark of the WoT. The No-Fly list overwhelmingly targeted Muslims, an estimated 98 percent, barring them from travel and making them susceptible to extra scrutiny at airports. The Senators’ efforts to reignite the no-fly lists, which involved arbitrarily placing individuals, including babies, on these lists, is a stark reminder that the WoT playbook will continue to be used to silence political dissent. 

Claims that those in support of Palestine, the rights of Palestinians, and an end to the genocide are motivated by antisemitism also rely on Islamophobic tropes. The assumption is that these protesters are largely Muslim, and that Muslims are inherently antisemitic. Such a racist notion is reliant on the idea that antisemitism is inherent to Islam. Not only is this false but this belief also fails to understand antisemitism, given that it arose in Europe and that Jews and Muslims in the Middle East had lived together in harmony for centuries. It’s also important to note that Jewish students have been involved in the pro-Palestine protests as well. The current conflict is a political one, not religious but accusations of antisemitism seek to frame it as such. 

The prevalence of this Islamophobic trope when it comes to discourse on Israel-Palestine was highlighted in a November 2023 report by Rutgers Center for Security, Race and Rights. The report’s authors, Professor Sahar Aziz and Mitchell Plitnick, note that throughout American society that the portrayal of Muslims as “loyal to terrorists and presumptively antisemitic is a well-worn image,” and one that has heavily informed public discourse and policy. The report also states that this Islamophobic trope claims “that Palestinians (who are presumed to all be Muslims) are motivated not by their own interests in freedom and dignity but by a hatred for Jews that renders them inherently untrustworthy.” Thus, any advocacy efforts for Palestinian self-determination is framed as part of a “conspiracy by Arabs and Muslims to physically annihilate Israel and its Jewish citizens,” and used to “silence any criticism of Israeli state practices and policies.”

It can be argued that the current climate in the US is a turning point in public awareness of Israel’s decades-long violent occupation of Palestine and discrimination against Palestinians. The younger generation is no longer confined to Western mainstream media, which has often exhibited Islamophobia and maintained a pro-Israel/anti-Palestinian bias, for information and is instead turning to social media where Palestinian journalists, activists, and residents of the occupied territories are sharing their on the ground accounts of Israeli aggression and violence. The newfound access to the Palestinian narrative, long denied a platform in Western mainstream media, enables Americans to attain a more realistic understanding of the issue. This is seen as a threat by the pro-Israel camp. In an effort to clamp down on growing criticism and protest, pro-Israel and Zionist voices have employed Islamophboic tropes, alleging antisemitism amongst the pro-Palestine encampments across the country. 

There is no denying that antisemitism is prevalent today but smearing the pro-Palestine movement as antisemitic is dangerous, Islamophobic, and undermines the issue. For the past few months, a number of members of Congress have been exploiting the issue of antisemitism, accusing University administrators of fostering a dangerous environment for Jewish students. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce has held a number of hearings on antisemitism, where university presidents have been grilled about antisemitism on campus. However, Professor Robin D. G. Kelley argues that “House Republicans are less interested in anti-Semitism than racking up “gotcha” soundbites for their fundraising campaigns, advancing the right-wing assault on DEI and what they define as “critical race theory,” and attacking the university as a whole,” and that is they truly wanted to tackle antisemitism, they “would investigate the white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and QAnon conspiracy theorists” that make up part of their [Republicans] base. 

Much of the manufactured hysteria around antisemitism within the Pro-Palestine movement has also been done to derail and divert attention away from Israel’s ongoing genocide of Palestinians. Additionally, while universities have responded swiftly to Jewish students feeling unsafe, little to no action has been taken for Muslim and Arab students who are facing real threats and violence. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) reported a 54 percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents, with over half of the complaints reported in the final three months of 2023. Since October 7th, 2023, the Center for Muslim Life at Rutgers University was vandalized, three Palestinian-American students were shot with one left paralyzed, an Arab Muslim student was targeted in a hit and run at Stanford University, students reported having their hijabs pulled off at George Washington University, and there have been countless reports of Muslim and Arab students subjected to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slurs including being called “terrorists.” The failure of university officials to acknowledge these threats and incidents of violence, and to ensure the safety and security of their students, highlights their active role in perpetuating Islamophobia.

Furthermore, unlike antisemitism, Islamophobia is systemic. While Congress has held hearings addressing antisemitism, no comparable governmental effort has been made to confront the scourge of Islamophobia. This discrepancy exists because anti-Muslim racism is ingrained within societal structures and institutions, often perceived not as a problem but as an acceptable and justified belief and behavior. This is prevalent in US politics as well as mainstream media. Additionally, the failures of university administrations to acknowledge, address, and tackle anti-Muslim racism demonstrates how academic institutions play a role in upholding and normalizing Islamophobia.

Administrators have not just sought to violently disband student protests, they have also actively silenced Muslim students. In April, the University of Southern California canceled class valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s speech, citing security risks. Officials failed to explain the safety concerns and Tabassum noted that the university had previously hosted high-profile individuals such as former President Barack Obama, and was thus capable of providing security. The valedictorian believed she was silenced for fear that she may use her speech to mention the genocide in Gaza. 

In another instance, Columbia University student Noreen Mayat explained the Religious Life staff made her feel like a “puppet,” after experiencing multiple rounds of censorship for her speech that she was to deliver as the Muslim senior representative at Columbia’s Baccalaureate Service. She explained that staff told her “not to mention Palestine, nor name any specific regions of the world where my community was suffering.” She published a piece outlining why she could not take part in the service:

“I am left with the understanding that to be Muslim at Columbia is to face extreme censorship of your language to appease an audience that doesn’t represent nor respect you. To be Muslim at Columbia is to be racially profiled and doxxed, beg for administrative resources and support, and still receive none. To be Muslim at Columbia is to face Islamophobia on campus—to be spat on and called “terrorists”—and receive no University acknowledgment or recognition. Instead, our experiences are interrogated, as administrators try to poke holes in our narratives, questioning whether they even happened, while others get seats at the table with the University President and the governor of New York, dedicated to making sure they feel seen, heard, and valued.

To be Muslim at Columbia is to have your community and peers be suspended, arrested, and brutalized by the New York Police Department for peacefully protesting the genocide of those who widely look and practice like us, and still being made out to be the aggressors.”

Muslim students across the country have voiced their frustration and disappointment with university administrations, asserting that they have failed to listen to and protect them. They highlight this as a stark contrast to the prompt response of officials in addressing the concerns of Jewish students. Sinq, a rising sophomore Pomona College in California stated, “I would say there were Muslim, Arab and Palestinian students who did not receive the same type of care and commitment to their well-being as their Jewish counterparts. The focus was always making sure Jewish students felt safe on campus, never about Muslim students. There was a huge disparity.”

In early May, the Guardian reported that the US government had opened an investigation into Emory University’s alleged discrimination against students with Palestinian, Muslim or Arab ancestry. The complaint against Emory is “one of at least six title VI claims regarding discriminatory treatment of Palestinian, Muslim and Arab students on US campuses; others include Columbia, Rutgers, University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.” It will be interesting to see the conclusions of these investigations.

US universities have emerged as focal points in the national conversation on Israel-Palestine, while also becoming breeding grounds for virulent Islamophobia. Crackdowns on pro-Palestine protests serve as symptoms of systemic Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian hate. In this context, victims of violence are unjustly labeled as terrorists or potential terrorists, while their supporters are branded as “antisemitic” and “terrorist sympathizers.” The pro-Palestine campus protests have illuminated a disturbing reality of rampant Islamophobia and the weaponization of antisemitism to discredit and silence dissenting voices.