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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.

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

  1. “Irving MacArthur student arrested after bringing homemade clock to school.” See this video from the Dallas Morning News.

    In this interview, Ahmed admits the “clock” looked suspicious. If you had bothered to wait a day before writing your opinion piece, you would know the Chief of Police corrects the initial media reports with evidence and explains that Ahmed admitted culpability. He knew his actions would set off alarms.

    Take the time to research the kid’s father. There lies the story and the truth. This episode was a set up to promote racial grievance, a ploy the “activist” father has used before.

    • could you please be kind enough to share the father’s profile that is supposed to prove the whole episode was a “set up”?

      and by the way, assuming that you are correct, gathering admission of “culpability” from a 14 year old with 4 police officers is not that hard difficult.

      • Amin, If you bother to read a couple articles, one quickly learns that Ahmed was described in reports by school staff and school resource officers as passive aggression, refusing to offer an explanation. He showed the “invention” to a teacher who immediately WARNED him to not carrying the device around school or share it with staff or students. Instead he CHOSE to take it to another class in which the device beeped. That teacher notified the two SROs, school resource cops, a reasonable, prudent and correct action.

        When interviewed by this teacher he DID NOT offer an explanation. He was described in police reports as passive aggression refusing to provide an explanation or simply state his claim that he built a clock. Ahmed is 14 not 7, he is responsible for what happened. Furthermore the device is a FRAUD. (See YouTube video here.)

        Google the father. He ran for president of Sudan twice.

  2. I would have agreed with this blog before I saw a photo of the device built by the student, and I now think that although the situation could have been handled with more sensitivity, it was an understandable reaction, especially given the kinds of stories that make the news on an almost daily basis.

    Does the story evince racial profiling? Perhaps — but profiling is a normal human occurrence. It happens all the time without controversy. Men commit many more murders than women do. Is it form of prejudice to focus a manhunt (a revelatory word!) on men rather than on women? When an act of domestic terrorism occurs, should all age groups be targeted equally? All nationalities? All religious factions? Common sense will supply the answers in most of these cases.

    What happened to the young student was a misunderstanding. Such incidents happen frequently. When I was graduate student in 1969, I flew from London to Paris and was immediately whisked to an interrogation room at the airport as soon as I disembarked and set foot on French soil. My luggage was thoroughly inspected. I was the only passenger subjected to this treatment. I also happened to be the only passenger with a beard and long hair. Was I indignant? Did I file a complaint? Did I charge the authorities with bias? No. Their suspicions were understandable. (This was 1969.)

    Several years from now, Ahmed will look back on this incident and see it for what it is: evidence that if racism was an element in the episode, it was dwarfed by the good feelings of the vast majority of the country.

    • I think you are missing the point, Mr. Hanson. Based on your proposition “Profiling is normal human behavior” then all the black people should simply accept police harassment for driving a vehicle, all women dressed in a certain way should accept untoward attempts by men, and minorities in general (not “privileged” with white skin or anglicized names) will always be more suspect.

      It’s that kind of apathy that leads to indifference and its indifference that ultimately causes people to continue moving towards ever extreme prejudice. Most of the Germans were against Hitler, but it was their indifference that let him commit the crimes he committed. I’m surprised by your statements and simply disagree.


  3. Many blog posts here by professors speaking on behalf of victims of society mistake phobia for paranoia. Paranoia is different from phobia.

    It is extremely important for targets/potential victims to be able to identify paranoia and utilize straightforward techniques to defuse paranoia.

    Failing to recognize and respond appropriately to paranoia often results in unfortunate situations which can become news headlines and which can be traumatic for both the individual and for that individual’s ethnic/religious/sociological group as well as for many members of society in general.

  4. Can you offer your evidence that Ahmed’s mistreatment was due to his religion, and not due to :

    1) Zero tolerance policies
    2) Color of his skin

    I think you’re right that what happened should concern all parents and all Americans. Not because Ahmed is Muslim, but because zero tolerance programs are evil, the cops overreacted and acted with the basic ignorance of STEM they should have in 2015, and due overall to nerd shaming of the sort that makes a principal and cop and chief of police ask, “why would you want to build a clock when you can buy one?”

    Anyway, maybe it is Islamophobia, but you have provided NO evidence for that.

  5. This was an unfortunate incident and a blunder by the school officials and even on how the police handled it. AND it turned out very positively for Ahmed within a short time.

  6. Same thing happen with Sikhs also like the hate crime that happened last week. These things need to be addressed.

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