With the start of the CUNY spring semester this week, members of the Queens College Muslim Association are fearing returning to a campus that they believe has turned increasingly hostile toward them.
“I really felt like I did not belong in Queens College and that I had to fight extra hard and I had to suppress my emotions just so I can fit in and be a part of the college,” said Nahian Islam, 24, an international student from Bangladesh, who started classes Thursday.
On Nov. 7 last year, the Queens College Muslim Student Association posted a story on Instagram questioning the narrative of the long unverified claim that Palestinian fighters beheaded babies during the Oct. 7 attacks. The student group also said that Hamas fighters “deliberately *avoided* targeting women and children,” and that there was “nothing wrong” with the group taking hostages in its fight against the Israeli government.
The post immediately drew controversy on the campus, which has a large portion of immigrant and first generation students.
Queens College President Frank H. Wu publicly denounced the post as “so deeply hurtful, and damaging.”
In an email shared with the student body the following day on Nov. 8, President Wu stated that the college’s Office of Compliance and Diversity would investigate QCMSA’s posts to see if they violated the college’s community values. If they are found to violate the school’s policies, they may be subject to sanction and disciplinary action.
President Wu’s email also stated the school had contacted the NYPD and would cooperate with them during the investigation. The email did not provide any further details about the investigation.
Queens College is another of the city’s higher education institutions to be embroiled in controversy around the Israel-Hamas war. Pro-Palestinian activists say they face intense pressure from their school’s administrations to stifle their ability to speak freely and face real repercussions for their words. Students at Columbia University who expressed solidarity with Palestinians had their names and faces added to doxxing spreadsheets or websites.
Last Friday, dozens of students at Columbia University were injured during an on-campus rally for Gaza when unknown assailants spread chemicals at the crowd. At least ten students have been hospitalized, according to the student group Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine. Nationally, pro-Palestinian students are fearing suppression of their criticism of Israel by fellow students and university staff. A 2016 Al Jazeera documentary linked a U.S. based nonprofit to a campus based spying operation that fed information back to Israel.
At Queens College, Islam, who is in her junior year studying international business and political science, says she got involved with the chapter of the MSA following the events of Oct. 7. Eager to express her solidarity with the Palestinian cause and with like-minded students, she was shocked by the level of backlash they faced on campus.
“During the first protest we had, we were literally called terrorists for chanting Allah ‘Akbar at the end of the protest,” said Islam.
“Allah ‘Akbar” translates to “God is great” in Arabic.
As the weeks dragged on, Islam said the level of scrutiny they faced only intensified, as the MSA students and pro-Palestine students were targeted if they expressed any of their views publicly.
“It’s very scary because there is no way we will ever see a pro-Palestinian student walking around with the flag all loud and proud because we know they will try hard to suppress our voices.”
Online and on-campus, Islam says that fellow Queens College students have waged a campaign to silence pro-Palestinian voices through intimidation that is contributing to a climate of fear. Although the Muslim student body has expressed an increase in hate speech against them, Islam found President Wu’s email to be one-sided.
“The school has never said anything to protect us or done anything to stop this despicable behavior,” she said. “We got an email to suppress what we are saying — we have never seen an email that said anything about Islamophobia.”
Anas Shuaib, 24, is one of the more vocal pro-Palestinian voices on campus and also a part of the student association. A Palestinian himself, he was offended that the college administration has not shown the same level of remorse for Palestinians as they have for Israelis.
“There was a vigil for Israel, but the administration didn’t support a vigil for the Palestinians,” he said. “Are Palestinians’ lives less valuable?”
Shuaib says that since President Wu’s email was sent, students have been reluctant to wave the Palestinian flag or wear Palestinian scarves called keffiyehs. During MSA meetings in the student lounge, Shuaib also claims that campus security observed their meeting taking notes.
“There is already a conspiracy theory that they were recording us in the MSA club room,” he said. “It’s like 9/11 paranoia.”
Responding to Documented’s request for comment regarding the ongoing investigation of the MSA, Jerima DeWese, Chief Diversity Officer and Dean of Diversity, Office of Compliance and Diversity at Queens College, stated that the college is committed to providing a welcoming environment for all and stands strongly against bigotry and discrimination, including Islamophobia and antisemitism.
She also stressed that any member of the college community may file a complaint with the Office of Compliance and Diversity should they wish to report alleged harassment or misconduct in violation of college and university policies.
“Queens College contacts the Community Affairs Office of the local police precinct whenever there are public safety concerns,” she said. “There is a review of social media posts that caused substantial public concern currently underway by the college’s Office of Compliance and Diversity (C&D) on this matter. We reserve further comment so that the investigative process may be appropriately respected.”
The NYPD did not respond to Documented’s numerous attempts for comment.
Although Islam plans to complete her education at Queens College, the passion and excitement she felt when she first started attending the school has since dissipated.
“The campus felt like my home but since the events, it really doesn’t feel like home,” she said. ”It just feels like I don’t belong there.”