Ahmed Mohamed, being the young science and engineering prodigy that he is, thought nothing too unusual about bringing one of his inventions to school to show to one of his engineering teachers at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas. After all, it was the beginning of his freshman year in high school, and what better way to get acquainted with his new instructors than by sharing with them his intellectual curiosities? It was this youthful innocence and perhaps even a bit of naivete which gave Ahmed the idea of bringing with him a homemade digital clock he’d made to school on Monday, September 14. Little did he know that such a benign act would have the potential to change the course of his life forever.
Ahmed’s day at school for the most part seemed to be going along as smoothly as any other day. The only thing out of the ordinary he could recall is that when he showed his invention to a teacher, the teacher told him he’d be better off not letting anyone else see it. Ahmed appeared to be heeding that advice. That all changed however when, during one of his afternoon classes, the alarm on the clock start beeping. The instructor of that class, curious to know what the disturbance was, demanded to see what Ahmed had that was making all of that noise. Apparently his digital clock looked rather suspicious to them, and the principal of MacArthur High was notified. Shortly before 3 o’clock, Ahmed Mohamed was pulled from his classroom to the hallway. Awaiting him were the school principal and a police officer. They immediately escorted him from there to an enclosed room where 4-5 more police officers awaited him. Immediately upon getting a glimpse of young Mohamed, according to the Dallas Morning News, one of the officers remarked, “Yup. That’s who I thought it was”, a remark which made Mohamed feel “suddenly conscious of his brown skin and his name.” Then came the interrogation. “So you tried to make a bomb?!,” asked one of the officers. “No,” replied Ahmed. “It’s an alarm clock.” But the officers would have none of it. “It looks more like a movie bomb to me,” came the dismissal. The cops were convinced that this young man must be lying, and on a hunch they concluded that Ahmed had failed to provide a “reasonable answer” to what the device was. With that they placed the 14 year-old in handcuffs, put into the back of a police cruiser, and him off to juvenile detention center. There he was fingerprinted, booked, and had his mug-shot taken before being released. He was also given a three day suspension from school.
It didn’t take long after the incident occurred for the local news media to pick up the story, and from there it made front page headlines on newsstands across the nation. Civil rights organizations and civil libertarians were none too pleased with what was an obvious case of religious and ethnic discrimination. How and why, after it was discovered beyond doubt that the device the young student had brought to school was indeed nothing other than a homemade digital clock, was the student being punished as if he’d done something terribly wrong? School administrators certainly weren’t doing much to defuse the situation either with their contradictory responses. For example, school principal Daniel Cummings sent an atrocious letter out to MacArthur High students’ parents in which he informed them that, despite the entire incident being a false alarm that “did not pose a threat to your child’s safety”, now would be the perfect opportunity to “remind your child how important it is to immediately report any suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior they might observe.” What a great way of making sure more false alarms like this continue to happen! Just make sure kids always keep a round-the-clock eye on students like Ahmed who they perceive as being “different” or “other”, and everyone will be safe. The letter then went on to essentially try and justify the school’s arbitrary decision by encouraging parents to speak with their kids about the school district’s “code of conduct” which expressly prohibits bringing “weapons, fireworks, knives and pepper spray, as well as ‘look-alike’ weapons”, but makes no mention anywhere of homemade clocks. Irving’s police department was sending mixed messages as well, such as when Irving Police Chief Larry Boyd on the one hand admitted his officers committed a “naive accident” while on the other hand continuing to reference the confirmed clock as a “hoax bomb“. For an entire week after it was confirmed to be a homemade clock, police refused to give up the notion that they must’ve been fooled by a “hoax bomb”. And as Chief Boyd informs us, it is “against the law to make a hoax bomb and cause people to be scared and call law enforcement.”
To make matters worse, there are plenty of rabid right-wingers out there who sit and wait for incidents like this to occur so that they can seize on them and stoke the flames of Islamophobia. One of them just so happens to be Irving’s mayor, Beth Van Duyne, a brazen bigot who regularly uses her platform to spew the most hateful and absurd conspiracy theories about Irving’s Islamic community. She is convinced, without a shred of evidence to back it up, that Muslims in Texas are plotting to transform the state into one which is run in accordance with Sharia law, a favorite talking point of the Republican party as of late. She even went so far as to show up for an interview this week with none other than notorious tea party demagogue Glenn Beck, who suggested that Ahmed’s homemade clock was part of conspiracy on the part of the “Islamists” to take over Irving. These two right-wing nut-jobs aren’t the only ones spreading this abhorrent agenda. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban seems to agree with them. Republican politicians, pandering to their rabidly xenophobic base, sidestepped the discrimination against Ahmed and other Muslims at a recent “runners up” (or more like Little League) GOP presidential debate. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, instead of denouncing the blatant disregard for the rights of Muslim students, took this as another opportunity to denounce what he calls “radical Islamic extremists”. He then went on to assert that discrimination against Muslims pales in comparison to that faced by Christians in America today (a statement which is outright laughable). South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham of course agreed with him.
Fortunately for Ahmed he has very loving and supportive family members who’ve shown an immense amount of bravery and courage in the face of this onslaught of negativity. The Mohamed family have been living in Irving for some three decades, going back to the time when Ahmed’s father, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed (who once ran against the corrupt leader of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, for President), moved to the U.S. from Sudan in the 1980’s. The senior Mohamed says that his son Ahmed is so enthralled with electronic engineering that he has at different times “fixed his car, his phone, his electricity and his computer and had built, in true all-American fashion, a go-cart.”
As for Ahmed, neither he nor his sisters will be returning to MacArthur High School after they informed their father that it is against their wishes. According to Ahmed, in an interview he gave to MSNBC, from the moment the police officers started interrogating him in the enclosed room, “I felt like I was a criminal, I felt like I was a terrorist. In middle school I was called a terrorist, called a bomb maker, just because of my race.” Such treatment is unfortunately often the norm for many students “who are South Asian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Arab“, particularly since 9/11. They, along with Black and Latino students, are the main targets of so-called “Zero-tolerance” policies. Ever since these policies were first implemented several decades ago, “administrators and safety officers treat minor infractions as cause for suspensions, detentions, expulsions and even arrests.”
If there’s one silver lining in this incident for Ahmed, it’s the fact that he’s been invited by none other than the President of the United States to bring his invention with him to a meeting at the White House. On Twitter, President Obama wrote,
Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.
— President Obama (@POTUS) September 16, 2015
There’s only one problem with that scenario. The police still haven’t returned Ahmed the clock they took from him, and judging from the fact that it’s been nearly two weeks since they first took it, and in spite of the fact that Ahmed has made it abundantly clear in several interviews that he wants it back, they don’t appear to be willing to return it to its rightful owner. For that reason his parents have hired a lawyer who will press for this stolen property to be returned.