The arrest of 14-year old Ahmed Mohamed in the Independent School District in Irving, Texas, illustrates the pervasiveness and normalization of Islamophobic responses that assume guilt before innocence. In this incident, Ahmed’s school principle, Dan Cummings, informed parents in a letter that the police were called to the campus in response to a “suspicious-looking item.”
He assured parents that the safety and wellbeing of their kids is of utmost priority for the district. However, this pledge of “safety and well-being” did not include Ahmed, who brought to school a simple electronic clock he had built as an engineering project.
The school wanted to make sure that all items brought to school are safe and don’t pose a threat. That’s understandable. The problem is what happened next: What should have been a simple misunderstanding escalated into a full arrest. The police arrived at the school, escorted the child in handcuffs and accused him of attempting to build a bomb and endangering the lives of others in the school.
These responses by the school and the police highlight the increasing use of religious and racial profiling in such incidents. Being Muslim in America today means different treatment at airports, intrusive questions at banks (with the possibility of having your account closed) and in the case of Ahmed, accusations of terrorist intent.
On Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg had the correct view on how to respond to this incident: “Having the skill and ambition to build something cool should lead to applause, not arrest. The future belongs to people like Ahmed. Ahmed, if you ever want to come by Facebook, I’d love to meet you. Keep building.”
“Cool clock, Ahmed” was President Obama’s response on Twitter. “Want to bring it to the White House?” he asked. More importantly, the president added: “We should inspire more kids like you [Ahmed] to like science. It’s what makes America great.”
The White House was correct in commenting that Ahmed’s “teachers have failed” by not taking steps to protect Ahmed’s rights and ascertaining the issue at hand. It is understandable to want safety for all the kids in your school – considering many violent incidents in the recent past. But a simple inquiry to Ahmed’s engineering teacher would have clarified the matter without involving the police.
This incident in Texas raises concerns not only for Muslims but all parents, and society at large: guilt by association, fear and a security-first approach have become the norm, undermining constitutional protection and common-sense approaches. Ahmed’s case should be a “teaching moment,” reminding educators to be more attentive to Muslim kids and how “otherization” impacts their ability to fulfill their dreams and aspirations.
Today’s response from America’s top political leadership is the correct one — and inspiring. Now this approach needs to permeate all levels of the society, including school administrations and local police departments.
However, and on the flip side, the current Republican presidential nomination contest has unleashed a massive Islamophobic avalanche that will impact the ability of civil society and educational institutions to respond effectively. Moreover, a number of Republican candidates have opted to utilize Islamophobia as a wedge issue and an instrument to appeal and possibly consolidate the base of the party behind them at this early stage. The Republican primaries tend to be a contest shaped by an appeal to the fringe of the party and increasingly Islamophobia is utilized to appeal to this group of voters.
Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have all jumped head first into Islamophobia with the hope that the committed and ideologically oriented fringe will come out strong during the primaries and reward them the nomination. A certain Islamophobic current is readily visible in public discourses, and some Republican candidates have tapped into it, encouraging in the process xenophobic tendencies among their followers.
Ahmed’s arrest is symbolic of the pervasive nature of Islamophobia in the U.S. and its intrusion into circles of society that otherwise should have been the appropriate sites for countering the prevailing racist tendencies. If Muslim kids feel excluded in schools and marginalized in society, then their ability to live a healthy and normal life will be impacted. Society and public figures create the Islamophobic environment, and Ahmed’s clock was the instrument that allowed the teacher, principle and police to act their prescribed racist role. What must be challenged are the structures that permit latent Islamophobia to take hold in society, which is then mobilized into actions and policies by agents of bigotry and racism during election cycles. Ahmed and countless other Muslims, African Americans, Latinos and kids of color need a racism-free environment to actualize their potential. This can only take place by a collective societal effort, which begins with turning away from politicians who are monetizing bigotry into votes and embracing difference and diversity as the future norm.