Like many in the social media universe, I was offended by what happened to Ahmed Mohamed. If you haven't been following the story, he's a fourteen year old high school freshman, and like many kids his age, he loves to tinker. Sometimes, he tries to repair things around his house, and sometimes he tries his hand at inventing. The other day, he made his own clock. It wasn't aesthetically beautiful, but it worked and he was proud of it. So he brought it to school to show his engineering teacher. He wanted to impress the teacher with what he had managed to do. And that's where things went wrong.
It should be noted that Ahmed lives in Irving, Texas, where the mayor, Beth Van Duyne, has become a favorite on conservative talk shows for making inflammatory remarks against Islam, and promising to fight against "Sharia Law" in Texas. As fact-checkers and journalists have pointed out, there have been no efforts by any local Muslims to impose Sharia Law; but the facts don't matter to those who fear or dislike Muslims. So, Mayor Van Duyne became a media darling for her promise to stand up to the mythical threat of creeping Sharia. (Truth be told, most Muslim immigrants in Irving and in many other cities, including Quincy, MA where I live, have assimilated quite well: they are happy to be in the US, they want their kids to attend good schools, they become citizens, they work hard, and while some are religious, others are not. And yes, Muslims use Islamic religious law in their mosque; but that's similar to how Catholics utilize church teachings about taking communion or Jews follow Biblically-based dietary laws. In the workplace or at school or in most other places, the vast majority of Muslims are fine about America's separation of church and state; and they understand that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of worship to all. Thus, while Ahmed Mohamed's sisters dress in traditional head-coverings, not all Muslim women do; and Ahmed dresses like a typical American teenager, in fact.) But back to the story of his invention.
When he showed his home-made clock to his teacher, he was told not to show it to anyone else. This was not the response Ahmed had expected-- after all, he wanted his teacher to be proud of his ingenuity. But then, another teacher saw his invention... and the next thing Ahmed knew, he was being handed over to the police and asked why he had built a bomb. The police held him in a room for more than an hour, refusing his requests to call his parents (which, I am told by lawyer friends of mine is not legal-- as a minor, he had the right to have a parent present if the police needed to question him). The police kept wanting him to admit he had built a bomb; in fact, his principal told him he would be expelled if he didn't admit he had built a bomb. He kept trying to explain it was not a bomb-- it was a clock-- but they wouldn't believe him. And then they handcuffed him and arrested him for "building a hoax bomb." He was also suspended from school for three days.
Since that happened, the charges against him were dropped, but the police, as well as the principal and the mayor, have defended what happened, saying they were simply following protocol and trying to keep the school safe. But like many on social media, I cannot help but wonder: if a young man named John Smith, rather than Ahmed Mohamed, built a home-made clock, would the outcome have been different? Ahmed's father wonders too-- was it really necessary to interrogate his fourteen year old son for over an hour like a criminal, handcuff and arrest him (humiliating him in front of other students), and take him to the police station? Ahmed wasn't rude, he wasn't combative-- he just kept trying to explain that he had built a clock. As his father noted, his son is a good kid, with a good reputation, and his love for tinkering is well-known. Yet the assumption was that he must be a terrorist of some kind.
Okay fine, I know that we live in a post-9/11 world and people are skittish about potential threats. But based on what reporters learned about the story, this did not seem to be a threat at all. One wonders if the suspicion about Muslims that can be heard on so many talk shows, and the remarks of the mayor against Sharia Law, played a role in creating an environment where a kid named Ahmed who built a clock was suddenly perceived as someone dangerous. The story has a semi-happy ending: in addition to getting lots of support on social media for what does seem like a total over-reaction by the school and the police, Ahmed has received an invitation to attend a special evening for inventors to be held at the White House; he also received invitations to tour Facebook headquarters, visit MIT and visit Harvard. But I still can't ignore the fact that this young man was treated with such contempt by adults who should have known better. I hope he will be able to forgive those who thought he deserved to be arrested, adults who saw him as someone to be feared, rather than as a creative young man with a bright future.