The keffiyeh – an Arab headscarf – has historically been a symbol of Palestinian liberation, but since Oct. 7, some students said it has made them and others a target for rising Islamophobia.
“I’ve been spit in the face. I’ve been directly pushed. I’ve been called a terrorist on multiple occasions,” said Mohammad, a student who was granted partial anonymity for safety reasons. “I’m constantly looking over my shoulder, I’m getting mean looks and people looking at me, just eyeing me down. I know they have the intention to make it some kind of form of harassment if they have a chance.”
Mohammad, who is also a media representative for Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA, is one of many students who have expressed concerns about rising Islamophobia over the past month.
An Oct. 7 attack by militant group and Palestinian political party Hamas on villages in southern Israel resulted in what Israel’s foreign ministry estimates to be 1,200 deaths, according to Reuters, with Hamas continuing attacks on the region since. In response, Israel launched a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip along with bombings and airstrikes, which the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said has collectively killed over 11,000 people, according to the Associated Press.
Campus organizations have held multiple events to draw attention to issues surrounding the 2023 Israel-Hamas war since Oct. 7. Students for Socialism at UCLA have hosted walkouts and teach-ins calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to UC investment in companies tied to the Israeli military.
However, there have also been a number of alleged incidents of Islamophobic harassment on college campuses since October, according to the New York Times.
Mohammad said he has heard about instances of harassment on campus and in Westwood, including those perpetrated both by students and people outside the UCLA community. He added that he has personally experienced harassment on campus when wearing a keffiyeh.
Other students also said they had heard of those wearing keffiyehs being harassed. Afnan Khawaja, a fourth-year computer science student and a member of the Muslim Students Association, said he has heard of many instances of harassment, such as one instance when a girl wearing a keffiyeh was pepper-sprayed in Westwood.
He said he was called a terrorist when he attempted to tell people to stop harassing girls protesting in support of Palestine.
A Palestinian student, who was granted anonymity for safety reasons, said they have heard numerous accounts of people yelling hateful comments at those wearing keffiyehs. While they said they have only heard accounts of physical violence perpetrated by non-students, they added that they have seen students spreading hate speech on campus about Arab students – such as calling them terrorists and Nazis and saying they deserve to be raped and killed.
“When I do go to protest, and I wear my keffiyeh or anything Palestinian, I’m definitely unsafe because seeing firsthand, people get very aggressive and violent when you’re not even trying to interact with them in the slightest,” they said.
One Muslim student, who was granted anonymity because of safety concerns, said in an emailed statement that they feel the university should be doing more to guarantee the safety of Muslim students at UCLA. They added that Muslim students have claimed they have experienced harassment and discrimination on campus.
“We have been subject to harassment, discrimination and aggression on the basis of our religion and our physical attributes,” they said in the statement. “Students have been harassed and many of us no longer feel safe walking alone, especially at night.”
Some Jewish organizations on campus, such as Hillel at UCLA, have published statements condemning the harassment of students with opposing views on the war. Kian Kohanteb, a third-year political science student who is a member of the leadership of several Jewish organizations on campus, said multiple organizations have published guidelines ahead of rallies supporting Israel that advise all protestors to avoid Islamophobia.
However, there have been allegations of Islamophobia during and after a rally held Nov. 7 in support of Israel. In a post on Instagram, the Undergraduate Students Association Council’s Cultural Affairs Commission claimed that Zionist protesters harassed, threatened and assaulted students who were showing support for Palestine on the same day as the rally.
The commission also alleged that on the same day, some of its staff members, who are Black students and students of color, were verbally harassed by an individual and threatened with violence. The commission has previously expressed solidarity with Palestine and condemned the United States’ and the UC’s financial and military support of Israel.
CAC did not respond to requests for comment.
Khawaja also said one man at the rally held a sign reading, “Hamas, Islam, Death.”
In a Nov. 10 campuswide email, Chancellor Gene Block said there has been a recent rise in incidents of hate at UCLA.
“Periods of conflict in the Middle East have time and again been linked to a global rise in reprehensible acts of Antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Arab hate,” Block said in the email. “I am extremely disheartened to say that this has proven true once again, and the UCLA campus has by no means been spared.”
In a joint statement sent on the same day, UC President Michael Drake and chancellors across the UC system said their administrations were also planning to make efforts to ensure the safety of those advocating on behalf of Palestine.
However, some of the students expressed dissatisfaction with the administration’s response.
Mohammad said he feels the university should be doing more to protect students and hold perpetrators of harassment accountable. He added that he feels the university has taken alleged incidents of Islamophobia less seriously than ones of antisemitism.
“We’re (UCLA is) allowing actual harassment, actual violence, actual verbal and physical assault,” he said. “The double standard is so hard to ignore.”
The Palestinian student said they were disappointed that an Oct. 13 statement by the chancellor described the Oct. 7 attack as a “grievous act of malice and hate” against Israelis but Palestinian deaths as “loss of life,” as the tonal shift emphasizes the violence against Israelis over Palestinians. They added that they feel the administration is at least in part to blame for inciting violence on campus because it has seemed to support Jewish students in its statements more than Palestinian students.
“What I would like to see in the administration and what I think the administration will ever do is not the same,” they said. “I just hoped from the beginning for just a general statement of, ‘Any acts of hate or violence toward anybody will not be tolerated.’”
Khawaja said members of MSA have started coordinating walks to and from campus together, especially at night. The Palestinian student added that people often walk to and from rallies together as well.
The Palestinian student said anything that shows an individual is Palestinian or supporting Palestine puts them in potential danger of harassment.
“Even if it’s nothing political and you just have Arabic writing on your shirt – and it could literally mean sunshine – they will literally call you a terrorist now,” they said.