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Understanding the nature of prejudice: The truth of Islamophobia and Ahmed Mohamed

In Tuesday’s Daily, columnist Ian Knight argued that the arrest and suspension of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was not a case of Islamophobia, but instead an example of “zero-tolerance” policy at work. These policies, he claims, “err on the side of caution” when it comes to protecting students — a prima facie cause.

While this argument is novel, it requires that zero-tolerance policies be implemented uniformly (and presumably as strictly as their name implies). To support this premise, the author sourced a number of stories that highlight the intense implementation of zero-tolerance policies. Two examples dealt with elementary school students, one of whom shaped a Pop-Tart like a gun. In the third example, the student, 13-year-old Khalid Caraballo, was suspended for a year without stepping foot on school property.

However, proof by induction requires that no counterexamples can be demonstrated. If the claim is that zero tolerance policies are always enforced, it’s a patently false one. I could trot out a list of examples of students, like Peter Mattis, or Logan Weimer, or Indy Brumbraugh, who also made homemade clocks, but were not suspended or arrested. I could tell you of the student who mixed diesel and fertilizer in a test tube to make an actual bomb at a science fair who was not suspended (though his teacher was).

Though Mr. Knight’s argument of actual zero-tolerance falls apart in light of these counterexamples, you, the reader, should find neither set of stories compelling. After all, they are just anecdotes.

The question at hand isn’t whether a zero-tolerance policy was enforced successfully — it was — it’s whether it was enforced selectively — empirically, it is. As Halimah Abdullah detailed almost two years before Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest, minority students are disproportionately affected by zero-tolerance policies, so much so that the Federal Departments of Justice and Education looked into these policies. In a letter to school districts, the civil rights agencies’ wrote: “In our investigations, we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students…In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”

The author claims that until “evidence surfaces” not only that the teacher in question has a “mistrust of Muslims” but that this mistrust caused suspicion, Islamophobia should be dismissed.

Unfortunately, as decades of research have shown, measuring observable prejudice — like Islamophobia — is extremely difficult. Because racism has become taboo, it is often restricted to the subconscious and to coded language. While an individuals might actively deny their own prejudice, their own actions can reveal their bias.

It’s those actions — and their effect on Muslims’ perceptions — that Stanford researcher Rachel Gillum attempted to uncover in a recent survey experiment which exposed subjects to a story about a person who is suspected of a major crime; that person’s identity — Muslim or White — was randomly assigned. She found that Muslim-Americans were 13 percent less likely to believe that the Muslim would be treated fairly by police than would the white individual.

Moreover, her extensive interviews found that civil liberties violations evidence that the government (in this case, a public high school in Texas) promotes a narrative that Muslims are criminals and are worthy of suspicion. This narrative makes it easier to satisfy the supposedly unbiased criterion of suspicion that Mr. Knight says warrants the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy.

In a complementary experiment to Gillum’s, I attempted to uncover white Americans’ underlying perceptions in my undergraduate thesis at Stanford. In a nationally representative sample of 1,931 white Americans, I tested subjects’ responses to questions about an individual, whose bio was randomly assigned. One set of respondents received a bio with an individual who identified as Christian; the other set received exact same bio, but with an individual who identified as Muslim.

I found, unsurprisingly, that white Americans were regularly more comfortable with restricting the Muslim’s civil liberties than the Christian’s, despite claiming to be tolerant of Muslims. Subjects were 6 percent less likely to approve of the Muslim speaking at a high school. They were 10 percent more likely to believe the police should be permitted to wiretap the Muslim. Similarly, they were 10 percent less likely to vote for the Muslim were he or she of the same party and running for Congress (which seems especially relevant given Ben Carson’s recent remarks). These subconscious biases can only be revealed experimentally — the smoking gun that Mr. Knight defies the nature of prejudice.

The truth is that Islamophobia colors the average American’s interactions with Muslims in all aspects of our daily lives, from airport security to building clocks.

The effects are obvious. While Mr. Knight says we trivialize the ‘legitimate’ cases of discrimination by labeling the case of Ahmed Mohamed with Islamophobia, my experience as a Muslim-American is quite different. The repeated narrative which links Muslims and terrorism (read: bombs) which made Ahmed suspicious in a way that other students who made similar clocks weren’t, has defined my experience as a young adult in post-9/11 America. If, as Mr. Knight says, “we are to improve the situation at large,” we need to uplift stories of successful Muslims like Ahmed, not to follow Mr. Knight’s ill-founded definitions of bigotry.

10/4/2025: This article has been updated to better reflect Mr. Knights original column.

Nick Ahamed was the Volume 246 Managing Editor of Opinions of The Stanford Daily. Contact him, for at least a few more weeks, at [email protected].

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Nick Ahamed

Nick Ahamed

Nick Ahamed is the Desk Editor of The Stanford Daily Editorial Board. He was Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 246 and previously served as a political columnist. He is a senior from Minneapolis, Minn. majoring in Political Science. Contact him at nahamed 'at' stanford.edu.