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It's not just Ahmed Mohamed: anti-Muslim bigotry in America is out of control

Ninth-grader Ahmed Mohamed being arrested in school.
Ninth-grader Ahmed Mohamed being arrested in school.
Prajwol/Ru

The arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, who was treated as a threat by his own school and police for bringing in an electronic clock he'd made as an engineering project, was not an isolated event. This was completely in line with a problem that has been growing over the past year: Islamophobia, which is the fear-based hatred of Muslims, is out of control in American society.

To understand why a Texas school would arrest a 14-year-old student for bringing in a homemade clock, it helps to understand what came before: the TV news hosts who declare Muslims "unusually barbaric," the politicians who gin up fear of Islam, the blockbuster film that depicts even Muslim children as dangerous threats, and the wave of hatred against Muslims that has culminated several times in violence so severe that what happened to Mohamed, while terrible, appears unsurprising and almost normal within the context of ever-worsening American Islamophobia.

Many Americans might be totally unaware this is happening, even though they are surrounded by Islamophobia: on TV, at airport security, in our pop culture and our politics, and inevitably in our schools. Perhaps, then, Mohamed's arrest will be a wake-up call.

Even just in greater Dallas, 2015 has been a year of Islamophobia

American Islamophobia has grown so severe that, even looking just at the neighborhoods immediately surrounding Mohamed's Dallas suburb, one can see, in broad daylight, the climate of hostility and fear America's 2.6 million Muslims have been made to live in.

The trouble began in January, when American Muslim families did what is increasingly expected of them, what American media and politicians demand of Muslims every time there is a terrorist attack: They gathered to formally condemn violent extremism and to cultivate positive ties with their local communities. They did this by organizing an event in the suburb of Garland called "Stand With the Prophet Against Terror and Hate," to raise money for a center dedicated to promoting tolerance.

In response, thousands of protesters mobbed the event, waving anti-Muslim signs and American flags for hours, forcing local Muslim families who attended to endure a gauntlet of hate. "We don't want them here," a woman at the protests told a local TV reporter. One man explained, "We're here to stand up for the American way of life from a faction of people who are trying to destroy us." They were not grateful that local Muslim-Americans had taken it upon themselves to combat extremism, but rather outraged that Muslims-Americans would dare to gather publicly at all.

A few weeks later, in early March, an Iraqi man who had just fled the Middle East to join his wife in Dallas stood outside their apartment photographing the first snow he'd ever seen when two men walked up and shot him to death. Police later ruled out the possibility that it had been a hate crime, but the murder drove home the fear among many Muslim-American families that they were unsafe.

Then, in May, a woman named Pamela Geller who is known for anti-Muslim hate speech organized an event with far-right political figures called the "Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest," also in Garland, to encourage Americans to draw deliberately offensive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a show of hostility toward Muslims. The event's organizers explicitly positioned it as "sounding the alarm about Muslim encroachment into Europe and America, and its potential impact on American culture," according to Breitbart.

When two gunmen tried to attack Geller's event (they were killed by police before they could harm anyone), some in the media compared it to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, elevating Geller's hate speech into free speech advocacy.

And then there's the arrest, this Monday, of Ahmed Mohamed, a ninth-grader in the Irving Independent School District, also a suburb of Dallas. Mohamed, a student with a love of science, had assembled a simple electronic clock as a sort of engineering project. He brought it into school to show it off to his engineering teacher, who was impressed.

But when another teacher discovered the clock, school officials asked police to arrest Mohamed, handcuffing and humiliating him in front of his fellow students. When he was first brought before police, an office remarked, "Yup. That's who I thought it was." Even after it became clear that the clock was just a clock, police grilled the boy, accusing him of trying to build a bomb, and the school suspended him for three days. On Tuesday, the school sent out a letter to parents that blamed Mohamed for the incident, suggested he had broken the student code of conduct (against clocks?), and urged families to look out for any other "suspicious behavior."

But this is not a story about Dallas. Rather, it is a story about widespread American problems that are playing out across the country, that occur regularly and repeatedly, and that have created the climate that made this incident and many others possible.

How American media creates a climate of anti-Muslim hate and fear

This Islamophobia did not come from nowhere; the story of America's resurgent Islamophobia is in many ways a media story. Over the past year, much of the media has treated the rise of ISIS in the Middle East as an indictment of Islam itself, a sign that Muslims are somehow less human and more violent.

This media coverage plays into precisely the narrative that groups such as ISIS wish to set, in which Islam and its 1.6 billion worldwide adherents are conflated with a tiny minority of extremists — even though it is Muslims who are by far the most likely to be killed by extremist groups, and who are the most likely to take up arms against them. But such coverage also promotes openly bigoted ideas about Islam, helping to create exactly the sort of climate in which a 14-year-old boy would be dragged off in handcuffs for building a clock.

Cable TV news has been promoting overt bigotry against Muslims, stating over and over that Islam is an inherently violent religion that is to blame for ISIS.

CNN has promoted a kind of "he said, she said" conception of Islam, in which it is valid and worthwhile to debate whether Muslims make for inferior people and societies, thus mainstreaming more overt bigotry. Host Chris Cuomo, for example, called Muslims "unusually violent" and "unusually barbaric." The network has run chyrons such as "IS ISLAM VIOLENT? OR PEACEFUL?"

Hosts have repeated bigoted falsehoods, for example that female genital mutilation is an inherently Muslim problem (in fact, it is a regional practice that crosses religious lines) or that restrictions on women driving are "commonplace" in the Muslim world (in fact, it is restricted to one country, Saudi Arabia, that represents 2 percent of the global Muslim population). In one bizarre segment, during an interview with Muslim-American human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar, CNN host Don Lemon interrupted him mid-sentence to ask, for no obvious reason at all, "Do you support ISIS?"

Fox News has taken this to the next logical step, telling its millions of viewers over and over that Muslims are a threat who must be feared and dealt with forcefully, even violently.

For example, Fox News's Andrea Tantros, in making a point about "the history of Islam," argued, "You can't solve it with a dialogue. You can't solve it with a summit. You solve it with a bullet to the head. It's the only thing these people understand." Bill O'Reilly has declared that "Islam is a destructive force" and that the US is in a holy war with certain groups of Muslims. Host Jeanine Pirro once issued a breathtaking seven-minute monologue calling for the United States to arm death squads throughout the Muslim world to kill all Islamists and members of Islamist organizations, though many of those organizations are avowedly peaceful and have millions of members, including women and children.

This problem extends to the left, as well. HBO host Bill Maher frequently rants against Islam and its adherents, saying, for example, that "vast numbers of Muslims want humans to die for holding a different idea" and share "too much in common with ISIS."

Islamophobia in the media has consequences

Demonstrators protest police civil rights abuses in New York. (TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty)

The school and police officials in Irving, Texas, as appalling as their actions may have been, were only doing what the American TV media has been telling them to do all year: to view Muslims with fear and suspicion, and to do whatever is necessary to neutralize the threat they pose.

It is no coincidence that popular attitudes toward Muslims are becoming more hostile in the US: Americans are more skeptical about Muslims and Islam, express lower favorability toward Muslims, are more likely to support racial profiling of Muslims, and increasingly say that Muslim Americans cannot be trusted in positions of government authority.

Sometimes the media is so effective at engendering Islamophobia that you can see attitudes hardening right before your eyes. Maher, in defending his comments about Muslims in an interview with Salon, bragged about as much. Here is he describing how, over time, as he has pounded away at Muslims, his once skeptical audiences have grown to accept and even embrace his ideas:

What I think is interesting is that the audience, my studio audience, has really come around on this issue. When I used to talk about it, it was just either stony silence or outright booing and now I notice quite a shift. ...

When I talked about it at the end of last week's show, they stood up at the end — they cheered during it and they stood up at the end. And when I introduced the topic last night, I'd say about half the audience gave a cheer when I said we need to stand up for liberal principles.

That bears repeating: The audiences used to sit quietly or boo when Maher espoused his hateful and factually incorrect views on Islam. Now they stand up and cheer. That is the power of the American media, and it's a power that is increasingly directed toward prejudice, hate, and fear.

The politics of Islamophobia are everywhere in America

Islamophobic attitudes initially spiked after President Obama's election — a continuation of the dog-whistle politics that Obama is a secret Muslim, or at least suspiciously un-hostile toward Islam — but have been resurfacing more recently.

State legislatures are passing laws banning "Sharia" or "foreign law," a barely veiled expression of official legislative hostility toward Islam and Muslim-American communities.

In late January, a Texas state legislator protested the state capital's Muslim Capitol Day, meant to promote tolerance, by demanding that any Muslim "publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws" before entering her office. "We will see how long they stay in my office," she said.

Her stunt likely seemed silly to many Americans — another far-flung legislator saying something outlandish — but it was neither isolated nor fringe, but rather part of a concerted and deliberate campaign to promote anti-Muslim fear and hatred that has coincided with anti-Muslim violence.

Elements of the Republican Party have been hijacked, at state and national levels, by a fringe group of anti-Muslim activists who see Islam itself as a threat. While some leading Republicans resist their agenda, others embrace it; Louisiana Gov. and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal has falsely claimed that Muslims in the UK have set up "no-go zones" that police refuse to enter and where Sharia law prevails, and that Muslim immigrants coming to the US are an "invasion" and "colonization."

These attitudes have contributed to the unwillingness to shelter Syrian refugees, with some politicians claiming that it will bring ISIS to our shores. They can also be seen in a February poll showing that 54 percent of Republican respondents believe that Obama "deep down" is best described as Muslim.

This shows up in popular culture, as well. In January, Warner Bros. released American Sniper, an Iraq War film that portrays Iraqis as an undifferentiated mass of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers who can only be confronted with violence.

In one scene, the film's protagonist and namesake shoots an Iraqi woman and child to death — an act the film tacitly approves by later showing them as having carried a grenade. The morality of killing Iraqi civilians is raised only so the hero protagonist can shout down whoever has had the gall to question his decisions by explaining that those civilians were no innocents.

American Sniper Tweets

(Cryanne)

The film went on to become one of the most successful war films in American history, to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and to inspire a wave of death threats against Muslims and Arabs.

The politics of Islamophobia have a real effect on how American voters perceive US foreign policy toward Muslim-majority countries, which you may have noticed involves an awful lot of bombing.

It also influences how the 2.6 million Muslim-Americans living in the United States are treated. And that treatment has been, over the course of 2015, not just increasingly hostile but at times violent.

Violence against Muslims is on the rise in America

Sara D. Davis/Getty

Craig Hicks, arrested for the murders of three Muslim American students in Chapel Hill. (Sara D. Davis/Getty)

Thankfully, so far most of that violence has targeted Islamic buildings rather than people — a series of mosques and Islamic cemeteries have been vandalized — though even this is rightly perceived by Muslims as a threat of more deadly attacks.

In November of 2014, someone opened fire on a California mosque as several worshipers prayed inside.

That December, a man in Kansas City wrote on his SUV that the Quran was a "disease worse than Ebola," and then drove the vehicle into a 15-year-old Muslim boy in front of a local mosque, severing his legs and killing him.

The January terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo magazine, in Paris, provoked a wave of Islamophobic violence in France as well as many threats to Muslims here in the United States. (Tellingly, Vox's coverage of that Islamophobia has drawn us more threats of violence, including threats of sexual violence against women writers, than any other subject I have ever covered. These threats have expressed hatred of Muslims and outrage at Vox's criticism of anti-Muslim bigotry.)

Then, in February, came the Chapel Hill murders: A man known for both his anger problems and his hatred of religion shot to death three university students, all Muslim, in his apartment complex.

#MuslimLivesMatter and America's treatment of a 14-year-old boy who likes electronics

When national media was slow to pick up the story of what had happened in Chapel Hill, many Muslim Americans used the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter to call attention to the murders and, just as crucially, to the growing hatred toward Muslims in this country.

The hashtag asked Americans to acknowledge the climate, one that many non-Muslims still refuse to see, in which Muslims are treated with open fear and suspicion. It was this climate, they argued, that had allowed the murders to happen, and that let them go initially ignored.

It is that same climate that led teachers at the Irving Independent School District to look at 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, and see not a bright young student trying to impress his engineering teacher but, rather, a dangerous threat.

It is that climate that led the Irving police to arrest, fingerprint, and interrogate Mohamed, even after it became abundantly clear that he had not built a bomb but a clock, and that led them to demand a provide a "broader explanation" for it. It is the same climate that led school officials, even a full day later, to see Mohamed's arrest not as a terrible mistake but as an opportunity to send a letter to parents asking them to be on guard against "suspicious activities."

This climate did not come from nowhere, and it is not isolated to Irving or to Texas or to the South. It came from CNN and Fox News, from Bobby Jindal and Bill Maher and Pamela Geller, from American Sniper and the film industry that decided to greenlight a mega-blockbuster that is laced with bigotry.

It comes from fear and prejudice, it affects 2.6 million Americans, and, make no mistake, it is getting worse. It will continue to get worse until American society can recognize this problem in itself and begin to honestly address it, even if it is uncomfortable, even if many of us struggle to look past headscarves and prayer rugs to see human beings.

The murders of the three students in Chapel Hill took us a step closer to seeing the problem of American Islamophobia and dealing with it, but it did not get us there. Perhaps the images of Ahmed Mohamed's arrest, the news that this child now says he no longer wants to share the things he builds, will finally help us see that Ahmed's arrest is an American problem, it is systemic, and, if we are to live up to our national ideals, we have to address it.