On Monday of last week, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a freshman at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, was arrested and interrogated by police after being suspected of constructing a hoax bomb and bringing it to school. Clad in an NASA T-shirt, the teenager and self-proclaimed future engineer maintained that the device, which consisted of a circuit board with wires leading to an electronic display all within a small briefcase, was a clock and nothing more. Police then escorted him to a juvenile detention center, where his fingerprints and mug shot were taken. He was later released without charge after police decided that he had not intended the device to be mistaken for a bomb. Ahmed’s arrest has been sharply criticized by the public as Islamophobic in nature, allegedly spurred by the prejudiced belief that Ahmed’s being Muslim made him a potential bomb threat. However, this argument falls apart when one examines the incident in the context of the zero-tolerance policies upheld by most schools, which are the true cause for the arrest. For this reason, treating Ahmed’s experience as a serious case of unfair discrimination against Muslim people is unwise and ignorant of the situation as a whole.
In recent years, we have witnessed the establishment of “zero-tolerance” policies, which are rooted in a desire to protect students from possible threats to their safety, as many argue it is usually better to err on the side of caution. For most people, including the mainstream media, this answer has been sufficient justification for the policies’ implementation. This has produced a climate where nibbling a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun, playing with an airsoft gun at one’s own home and using a Hello Kitty bubble blower shaped like a gun are all heinous enough reasons for schools to take disciplinary action against students. People are so accustomed to these extreme reactions that it seems overly protective measures have become the norm. As a result, many schools continue to use metal detectors, employ drug/bomb sniffing dogs, station security guard and codify zero-tolerance policies, all without protest from the student body or general populace. Because “to protect the children” sounds like a good reason to most people.
However, Ahmed’s arrest and subsequent release without charges since has spawned a social media explosion of support for him and his family, as well as a surge of critics pinning the cause of the incident on Islamophobia, which they purport has infected MacArthur High School, the police department and the culture of Irving itself. This argument is problematic, since any student who brought Ahmed’s device to school would likely have faced the same ordeal.
It is very clear to everyone now that Ahmed intended no harm to anyone. However, the same could be said for any one of the plethora of students arrested or punished under zero-tolerance policies for innocuous behavior in recent years. When a teacher sees a student with a briefcase full of wires and electronic parts, it arouses suspicion, no matter the student’s race, religion or name. Even if it may appear obviously harmless to an engineer, a device like Ahmed’s looks like a potential bomb to a teacher. It is within reason to expect school officials to intercept the student in such a situation, which is exactly what happened: When questioned by his English teacher after the device beeped in class, Ahmed responded that it was simply a clock. However, in the mind of a teacher charged with reporting possible threats (a requirement of a zero-tolerance culture), simply stating that the beeping, wire-filled briefcase is a clock without explaining further is not enough to assuage the fear of a potential bomb threat. Therefore, the choice to alert the principal and call the police was clearly the right one.
For this reason, it is unlikely that Ahmed was arrested for any reason other than the fact that he brought something to school that the average teacher imagines looks at least somewhat like a bomb. Until evidence surfaces showing a direct link between the teacher’s suspicions and a mistrust of Muslims, it is ill-founded to consider this a case of anything besides the natural result of the employment of zero-tolerance policies in an attempt to avoid threats to student safety.
Furthermore, the surge of support for Ahmed and his family is creating a religious discrimination issue out of an ordeal unrelated to the victimization of Muslims. It is important that advocates of social justice point to the legitimate problems that concern them, or else they become an easy target for criticism, thereby impeding their real goals. That being said, an invitation to the White House, an invitation to Facebook Headquarters and even a request for Ahmed to intern at Google are all perfect examples of how this issue has been extravagantly overblown to the point where a 14-year-old who built a basic digital clock is treated as a hero. In reality, he is simply a victim of an unfortunate misunderstanding.
Ahmed deserves an apology for being falsely arrested, of course, but his arrest itself is not indicative of anything other than a culture of zero-tolerance in schools. By labeling Ahmed’s experience as a prime example of Islamophobia, we are trivializing legitimate cases where Muslims face unfair discrimination or even lose their lives. If we are to improve the situation at large, then we must be prepared to judge real bigotry against Muslims for what it is and Ahmed’s experience for what it is not: Islamophobia.
Contact Ian Knight at isknight ‘at’ stanford.edu.