The schoolboy who was mistaken for a terrorist | Inquirer Opinion
Commentary

The schoolboy who was mistaken for a terrorist

/ 12:16 AM October 01, 2015

ISTANBUL, Turkey—We all know the story by now: Ahmed Mohamed is a 14-year-old from Irving, Texas, who brought a homemade clock to his school, but when he showed it to his teachers, he was—instead of being praised for his science project—handcuffed in front of his classmates, arrested for making a “hoax bomb” despite his insistence that what he had built was a clock, suspended from his school, and taken to juvenile detention.

Reaction from social media was swift, rallying around the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed. Here in Turkey—where a vast majority of the people are Muslim—news reports framed the incident within the larger context of Islamophobia in the United States, and many were quick to condemn it.

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Irving police chief Larry Boyd insisted that their response “would have been the same” regardless of the teen’s religion. He explained that the handcuffs were “for the boy’s own safety.” Beth Van Duyne, the town’s mayor, defended the police officers’ action, saying that they had “followed protocol.”

“It made me feel like I wasn’t human. It made me feel like a criminal,” Ahmed said of what he went through. Days after, his family announced that he would be transferring to another school.

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Aside from having a glimpse of how prejudice is experienced by young people—and exacted by authorities—what can we learn from this incident?

First, we can see how fear and ignorance can make people—even, in the words of the White House, “good-hearted people”—inexcusably irrational. We saw the same kind of irrationality during the height of the Ebola outbreak last year, when teachers coming or traveling from other parts of Africa were forced to go on leave or even resign even if the places where they came from were several countries away from the outbreak. Here, too, we see a mix of fear (of the Ebola virus) and ignorance (of African geography).

These forms of fear and ignorance, however, affect some groups more than others, and this is where prejudice and stereotyping come in. As one representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations put it: “They automatically jumped to a conclusion that I don’t believe they would’ve jumped to had he been ‘Jimmy.’” Others argue that in the wake of 9/11 and in the rise of the Isis, which has showcased videos of teenage fighters, this “profiling” is justifiable, but the fact that this has not happened to white male youths—the common “face” in school shootings in America—belies this claim.

Here, I am reminded of anthropologist Pete Benson’s notion of “faciality,” which suggests that violence against marginalized classes is exercised in part by perceiving and cateorizing them through the way they look. Thus, the face of a Muslim boy becomes the face of terrorism, or the face of an African schoolteacher becomes the face of an epidemic.

Second, the very fact that we are talking about Ahmed speaks of how stories like his can circulate all over the world, taking lives of their own.

Charlie Hebdo is illustrative of this phenomenon. Over the years the Paris-based satirical newspaper has published demeaning images of the Prophet Muhammad, including nude caricatures, which reached a global audience. On Jan. 7, 2015, two gunmen stormed the newspaper’s office, killing 12 people while proclaiming that “the Prophet is avenged.” This murder of journalists and police officers is surely a horrible crime. Even so, the potential of local actions to spark global outrage should encourage people like the authorities of Irving, Texas, and everyone else who has constituencies and audiences, including journalists, to be more sensitive.

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On a positive note, we see how the circulation of these stories can also lead people to rally around a certain cause, raising its profile and opening up “teachable moments.” The fact that political and economic figures from Barack Obama to Bill Gates have lined up to offer gifts and invitations to Ahmed speaks of an America that is trying to be more open and tolerant, while the outpouring of support for Ahmed speaks of the global consensus against prejudice. “I really didn’t think people would care about a Muslim boy,” tweeted Ahmed. But as the millions who have taken to Twitter to support him have shown, a lot of people do.

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The focus on Ahmed, however, should not be overdone. The resentment toward Malala Yousafzai by some in the Arab world is a reminder that raising up a symbol g have the unintended consequence of alienating the people symbolized. The analogy between Malala and Ahmed is, of course, flawed—the gender differences are significant—but there is a point to be made here of not focusing attention too much on one “poster child” in the face of a much-wider issue. That is, the appeasement of Ahmed, with scholarships and White House invites, should not be raised up as an exorcism of the Islamophobia that affects Muslim youths.

Focusing on the details of Ahmed’s story can also distract us from the heart of the matter. When outspoken atheist Richard Dawkings voiced doubts about Ahmed’s motives and questioned whether he really invented a clock, others rightfully pointed out that he is ignoring the broader context of racial and religious prejudice.

Indeed, what is at issue here is Ahmed not as an inventor, but as a young American belonging to an ethnic and religious minority, and how, simply by the way he looks, can be mistaken for a terrorist. How can we build trust between societies if faces themselves have lost the presumption of innocence?

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.

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TAGS: Ahmed Mohamed, false accusation, hoax bomb, Islamophobia, terrorism
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