A 14-year-old Texas boy named Ahmed Mohamed has this week gone from a nerdy high school freshman, to a suspect in handcuffs, to a nationally known figure personally invited by President Obama to the White House.
Ahmed has also become a viral hashtag, #IStandWithAhmed, and a symbol of several distinct American problems: security obsessions in schools, racial profiling in policing, diversity issues in science education, and most especially Islamophobia. And it all revolves around a clock.
Here is the story of Ahmed Mohamed, why it matters, and the bigger picture of overlapping American problems that he has brought to our attention.
1. Who is Ahmed Mohamed and what is his clock?
Ahmed Mohamed is a 14-year-old high school freshman who lives in the Dallas suburb of Irving. He has a passion for engineering and tinkering with electronics. His family Muslim; his father immigrated from Sudan, where he still sometimes travels to launch symbolic presidential campaigns, in the 1980s.
On Monday, Ahmed brought one of his inventions with him to school: a simple electronic clock. He showed it to his engineering teacher, who was impressed but told Ahmed not to show it to others. In a later English class, the clock beeped and his teacher asked to see it. The teacher asked if it was a bomb; Ahmed explained, no, it was a clock.
The teacher confiscated the clock and said something — it's not known what — to school officials, who called the police. Police, along with the school principal, took Ahmed into another room to interrogate him. When Ahmed entered the room, he later recounted, an officer whom he'd never seen before remarked, "Yup, that's who I thought it was."
Police questioned Ahmed for 90 minutes, accusing him of trying to make a bomb, during which time they did not allow him to speak to his parents (which was almost certainly a violation of his rights). Though Ahmed insisted it was only a clock, and though on cursory inspection it was indeed just a clock, they handcuffed him and led him out of the school, at which point this iconic photo was taken:
Ahmed's sister told me to post this. Yes this situation is real for those questioning. pic.twitter.com/Oxd0JxUS6O
— Prajwol/Ru (@OfficalPrajwol) September 16, 2015
Police accused Ahmed of making a "hoax bomb" and took him to a juvenile detention center, where they took finger prints and a mug shot — keep in mind that, at this point, everyone is totally aware that his clock was only a clock — and held him until his parents arrived. The school suspended him for three days.
2. How did the school and local police handle all this?
Amazingly poorly. These institutions, which exist to protect children like Ahmed, instead continued to treat him as a terrorist long after it was clear that his clock was just a harmless clock, a project made to please his teachers.
The school claimed that Ahmed had broken the student code of conduct (against clocks?) in justifying his suspension.
The next day, the school sent out a letter to parents, which strongly suggested that the incident had been Ahmed's fault, though it didn't name him. The letter said school officials had found a "suspicious-looking item" and cited an "ongoing police investigation." It urged parents to talk to their kids about "not bringing to school items that are prohibited" and to look out for "suspicious items and/or suspicious behavior."
Police, meanwhile, for two days kept open their investigation, arguing that Ahmed had failed to provide them with a "broader explanation" for the clock. On Wednesday afternoon, Irving Police Chief Larry Boyd issued a statement acknowledging no fault and saying that Ahmed had been "taken into custody for possession of a hoax bomb." Boyd added that Ahmed, who is to be a clear a child, "was handcuffed for his safety, and for the safety of the officers."
Police and school officials, the very people tasked with safeguarding Ahmed and his future, really failed him every point of the way, humiliating and punishing for pursuing his passion for engineering.
3. What is #IStandWithAhmed?
As Ahmed's story spread nationally on late Tuesday and early Wednesday, social media users showed solidarity by tweeting the hashtag #IStandWithHashtag. At this point, he was still suspended and under formal police investigation — it wasn't at all clear Ahmed would be allowed back in school, much less become a national hero.
The hashtag was meant to call attention to Ahmed's plight, the injustice of how he'd been treated, but also to speak to larger issues of discrimination; to the ways in which boys and girls in America can be discouraged from their dreams on the basis of their race or religion.
Two communities seemed to really rally, in the first hours, to the campaign: Muslim-Americans, who know this discrimination all too well, and technology workers, who know how important it is to be encouraged in one's early experiments with building and how damaging it can be to be discouraged.
Tech entrepreneur and writer Anil Dash sent a series of tweets late on Tuesday that, though they did not use the hashtag, captured the sentiments well:
I used to take circuit boards & electronics to school, even as the only brown kid. Now, my entire job is building a community of makers.
— Anil Dash (@anildash) September 16, 2015
If any of our early geek experiments had gotten the most terrifying response possible from teachers & police, would we have kept doing it?
— Anil Dash (@anildash) September 16, 2015
Some spoke more specifically to Islamophobia and anti-Arab discrimination, such as this powerful Facebook post by journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin:
By Wednesday afternoon, there was a national outpouring of condemnation of how Ahmed had been treated and support for the boy himself. It was a way for people to show how they felt about his case in particular, but also a way to oppose discrimination and support creative young people who seek to overcome it.
Assumptions and fear don't keep us safe—they hold us back. Ahmed, stay curious and keep building. https://t.co/ywrlHUw3g1
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 16, 2015
It culminated with President Obama's invitation for Ahmed to visit the White House:
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
This is about when the tide of events in Irving turned in Ahmed's favor. Police announced they were dropping their investigation and school officials acknowledged their earlier announcements on the incident had been "unbalanced." Ahmed, now a social media celebrity, was being flooded with internship offers and media invitation.
4. Why is Ahmed Mohamed's story such a big deal?
Partly, it resonated for the obvious injustice of his particular, but also for the way it seemed to lay bare some much bigger problems that are sometimes hard to talk about.
One of those problems is schools' ever-growing, and often counter-productive, obsession with security. In recent years, schools have become ever more like fortresses, with teachers and officials trained to look at their students as potential threats. Schools are increasingly organized around fear, and that fear helps explain why the Irving school and local police would want to handcuff, question, and arrest a 14-year-old boy who had made what was clearly, on even cursory inspection, just a clock.
It also shows the folly as well as the inhumanity of profiling — the same sort of profiling we use in security for airports and other locations, where people who look a certain way can expect to be screened and re-screened.
Another problem this incident got to, albeit more glancingly, is America's lagging science and math education. On one hand, the US seeks to promote science and math education and often to attract talented students from abroad, but on the other its treatment of this immigration's son shows one of the many harms of discrimination. Ahmed, as a NASA-shirt-wearing tech nerd who builds stuff in his free time, should be celebrated by his school, but instead was punished.
Most of all, though, it speaks to the problem of Islamophobia in America, the fear-based hatred of Muslims, which has been bad since 2001 but has been getting rapidly worse ever since the rise of ISIS.
There have been many incidents of anti-Muslim discrimination in the past year, but the issue is often difficult to talk about, and public distrust of Muslims remains widespread. Ahmed's treatment was so transparently bigoted and so totally inexcusable that it made the problem impossible to ignore.
5. Can we take a video break? I keep hearing that Ahmed is adorable, but how adorable really?
Judge for yourself; here's his press conference from Wednesday, in which he is introduced by his father:
6. Back to the serious stuff. Why is Islamophobia so bad lately?
There are 2.6 million American citizens who are Muslim, and their experience since 2001 has not always been an easy one. But it has worsened significantly since the rise of ISIS, which has coincided with a growing hostility in many elements of American media and politics toward Islam and Muslims.
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.
While this problem is not exclusive to the media, it is most clearly expressed there, particularly on TV, and media coverage of ISIS and Islam itself has frequently perpetuated Islamophobia.
While this is most associated with Fox News, 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. Host Chris Cuomo, for example, called Muslims "unusually violent" and "unusually barbaric." The network has run chyrons such as "IS ISLAM VIOLENT? OR PEACEFUL?"
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."
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.
7. Are Muslims in America at risk of more than discrimination?
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.
After that, many Muslim Americans (and sympathetic non-Muslims) began circulating the hashtag #MuslimLivesMatter to express both the growing fear in communities and the sense that violence against Muslims was being ignored. While it generated media attention, anti-Muslim discrimination has nonetheless continued.
8. Are politicians taking Islamophobia seriously?
Some are, sort of. The Obama administration has tried to deal with this some, meeting with faith leaders and working to promote religious tolerance, though often this is in the context of countering violent extremism, an effort to combat ISIS propaganda that (falsely) claims the West is at war with Islam.
The administration has also seemed to fear that any support Obama showed for Muslim citizens would only deepen far-right conspiracy theories that he is himself Muslim, thus worsening Islamophobia. Unfortunately, as polls such as this from February 2015 shows, that fear may be well-founded:
More worryingly, some politicians on the right have worked to actively cultivate or indulge Islamophobia. 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."
On Wednesday night, during the JV round of the Republican presidential debate, moderator Jake Tapper asked the candidates whether Ahmed Mohamed's treatment showed discrimination:
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. Jindal argued that Christians were the real victims of discrimination. Sen. Lindsey Graham said, "Young men from the Mideast are different than Kim Davis and we've got to understand that."
9. What's next for Ahmed Mohamed?
Short term, Ahmed says he's transferring to a different high school and plans to take up Obama's offer to visit the White House.
Longer-term, he's been inundated with internship offers from major tech companies. An awful lot of those offers were made publicly, which suggests that maybe some of them were designed to exploit Ahmed's trauma for a little publicity, but maybe some of them were real.
Ahmed seemed self-possessed and confident during media appearances in a way that speaks well of him, and his family handled the entire episode with a degree of care and savvy that seems to suggest he's growing up in a good environment.
The situation in the greater Dallas area, where Ahmed lives, is still not a great one for Muslim families. The mayor of Irving, Ahmed's suburb, has a record of appalling Islamophobia. The greater Dallas area has had one incident of high-profile Islamophobia after another this year.
In January, for example, local Muslim families from the Dallas area gathered for an event to condemn extremism and cultivate tolerance and positive ties with the broader community — exactly the sort of thing that media and politicians so often demand of Muslims. The event was besieged by thousands of anti-Muslim protesters who shouted that "we don't want them here" amid bigoted slurs.
Nationally, the problem of anti-Muslim discrimination seems unlikely to abate until there is a national reckoning that renders this particular form of bigotry — which is still openly tolerated in our media and politics — out of bounds. There will be more Ahmed Mohameds.