14-year old Ahmed Mohamed brought a clock to school to impress his teachers and was detained by police on suspicion of terrorism – would this happen to a white kid?
"Assalaamu’alaikum," a 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed warmly says to the crowd at a press conference in north Texas. He smiles as he is met with a chorus of people responding "wa'alaikum salaam". He goes on to introduce himself as "the person who built a clock and got in a lot of trouble for it". An act of defiance from an unapologetically Muslim, unashamedly bright young man.
Ahmed is the Muslim kid of Sudanese origin who built a ticking thing that surely couldn’t be anything but a bomb? He did it to impress his teacher and you know, make something. Instead of being impressed by his ability, his teacher called the police, who handcuffed him, detained him and questioned him as to whether his clock was a bomb. It was a purely creative, industrious act, turned into a potential act of terrorism.
The media frenzy surrounding this MacArthur High School student from Irving, Texas has captivated and angered many of us, with #IStandWithAhmed trending worldwide on Twitter for the last 24 hours. When a gifted child trying to impress his teachers is treated like a terror suspect for building a clock which was mistaken for a bomb, it is hard to ignore the climate of racial and religious hostility in which this incident took place.
Growing up as a Muslim child post-9/11 in countries such as Britain and America has left most of us facing constant opposition towards our cultural and religious identity. I was only seven when the September 11 attacks took place, and so it is personally hard for me to remember a time in which I wasn’t having to defend myself and my religion from racist and Islamophobic stereotypes. Muslim children are often acutely aware of how they are perceived differently, and negatively, as compared with their peers.
However, children like Ahmed at the intersect of being both black and Muslim in America face a heightened and uniquely disparaging hostility in society, as both their racial and religious identity are treated with suspicion. Young black children are routinely demonised and racially profiled by police, schools and mainstream media. The shooting of 12-year-old African-American boy Tamir Rice carrying a toy gun by a white police officer, sparked protests and worldwide criticism.
In the case of Tamir Rice, as in the case of Ahmed Mohamed, these black children are racially profiled to such an extent that their behaviour, if exhibited in their white counterparts, would be deemed totally normal and would not evoke any kind of suspicion. However, the same behaviour in black children is automatically perceived as threatening and suspicious, resulting in an attack on their freedom and civil liberties, and in Tamir’s case, his life. Black children in white society are simply not perceived with the same childlike innocence that white children are, and are subjected to hostility and adult-treatment in a way that white children are not.
As the prevalence of racism so deeply engrained into society has been such a constant in American history, it is hardly surprising that this has now manifested in the suspicion and hatred of Muslims in recent years. According to FBI crime statistics, hate crimes against Muslims are now five times more likely to occur since 2001.
‘We cannot allow our young people to be limited in life by those who seek to criminalise their very existence in society’
The climate of fear perpetuated largely by right-wing media has totally defined a lot of people’s perception of Muslims. In fact, Islamophobia has become a multi-billion dollar industry in it's own right. There are people like Pamela Geller who have forged entire careers from it. The cycle of fear that sells newspapers, helps to garner support for wars in Muslim-majority countries and drives arms sales also inevitably demonises Muslim youth. This is despite the fact that the most significant acts of domestic terrorism in the past two decades – such as the massacres in Columbine High School, the Colorado movie theatre, Sandy Hook Elementary School and Charleston Church - were all carried out by white, male youths under the age of 25. And yet it is black and/or Muslim young people who face suspicion and hostility, and who are treated as guilty until proven innocent.
Perhaps this is why the #IStandWithAhmed hashtag resonated with so many Muslims and indeed non-Muslims all over the world. Social media has helped to shed light on injustices that may not ordinarily have been picked up by mainstream media, and in that sense it has given some of the power of representation to the people. Ahmed’s story has drawn attention to the plight of harmless young Muslims and black people being unfairly scapegoated as '"the enemy within", in a country plagued by social inequality for reasons far beyond their control.
So while Ahmed may be consoled by the mass outpouring of support for him, as well as his personal invitation to the White House by President Obama, and to Facebook HQ by Mark Zuckerberg – let us hope that his story can also help to discourage the less-publicised incidents of racial profiling that kids experience everyday that can be irrevocably harmful to their personal growth and development.
The racist assumption that black and/or Muslim young people are not capable of greatness, without there being an underlying threatening agenda, is something we must all work to dismantle in our various communities. We cannot allow our young people to be limited in life by those who seek to criminalise their very existence in society.