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14-year old’s arrest over a clock: a teaching moment

Hatem Bazian, senior lecturer, Near Eastern studies and Ethnic studies | September 16, 2015

The arrest of 14-year old Ahmed Mohamed at 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 principal, 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 well-being 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.

President Obama's tweet

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: a simple misunderstanding escalated into a full arrest. The police arrived at the school, escorted the child away 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. Being Muslim in America today means prejudicial treatment at airports, intrusive questions at banks (with the possibility of having your account closed) and, in the case of Ahmed, unfounded 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.