On Wednesday, at the first round of the Republican presidential debate, the candidates were asked about Ahmed Mohamed, whose arrest had provoked a national backlash, both against the school that arrested him and against the broader trend of Islamophobia run amok.
It did not go well. The candidates were clearly uncomfortable with the subject of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry and worked very hard to avoid it. Of the three candidates who answered, none could bring themselves even to say the boy's name, Ahmed Mohamed. All three attempted to shift the conversation to Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
Unsurprisingly, but depressingly, none came anywhere near acknowledging, much less condemning, the rise tide of intolerance against Muslims in America, and in some cases they fed into it.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was asked first whether the incident showed that "anti-Muslim discrimination" could go too far. Jindal, who has previously (and falsely) claimed that Muslims in the UK had converted vast areas into "no-go zones" for non-Muslims, seemed immensely uncomfortable with the question.
Jindal said he was glad the student had been released but avoided saying whether he should've been arrested, then pivoted immediately to Kim Davis, whom he called proof that "the biggest discrimination going on is against Christian business owners and individuals who believe in traditional forms of marriage."
When it was Sen. Lindsey Graham's turn to answer, he drew a bizarre contrast between Kim Davis and "young men from the Mideast," whom he said he feared. It is honestly not clear to me, reading and re-reading his answer, whether he was suggesting this fear of "young men from the Mideast" includes 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, or if he had just completely forgotten about the arrest of a child that had hours earlier become a national controversy:
Kim Davis, I'm not worried about her attacking me. I am worried about radical Islamic terrorists who are already here planning another 9/11. We're at war, folks, I'm not fighting a crime. I want to have a legal system that understands the difference between fighting a war and fighting a crime. And here's the reality: young men from the Mideast are different than Kim Davis and we've got to understand that. Islamic web sites need to be monitored. And if you're on one I want to know what you're doing.
Former New York Gov. George Pataki answered as well, but mostly discussed Kim Davis. He did say that if Davis had been Muslim, then there would not have been "that same outrage" on her behalf.
In all, if you care about what happened to Ahmed Mohamed, and especially if you care about the larger trend of anti-Muslim bigotry that his story represents, then this segment of the Republican presidential debate would leave you with the impression that these candidates do not particularly care about these issues and would really rather avoid them.