Time of Fear
What the story of Ahmed Mohamed and his clock tells us about our culture of hysteria.
The photograph says it all. So much of what we love and loathe about Texas is right there in the now-famous image, captured on a Monday in mid-September, of a spindly freshman at MacArthur High School in Irving.
In the picture, there is a dark-skinned teen, the son of immigrants from a war-torn country who came to one of the nation’s most diverse states to find peace and prosperity. He is wearing a gray T-shirt with the NASA logo on it. With his nerdy glasses, he looks like an engineer—not uncommon in a state noted for its ingenuity. He could almost be mistaken for one of the young techies from the SpaceX project, in Brownsville, or the many web companies in Austin, or Texas Instruments, in Dallas, not far from where the photo was taken. He seems like the new face of Texas, the future of our robust economy, everything we like to boast about. Except he’s being led away by the police in handcuffs.
That contradiction—this nerdy teen, all head and limbs, who doesn’t look the least bit threatening—hits you in the gut. Is this how we treat a smart, talented kid? Is this who we are? In part, yes. What happened at MacArthur High represents much of what plagues our state: the anti-intellectualism and the intolerance, the over-criminalization of kids—especially kids with darker skin—and, perhaps most of all, the fear and divisiveness that had this fourteen-year-old on his way to juvenile detention.
Finally, there is the expression on his face. He looks confused and afraid, and a little angry. How could this be happening? All he did, after all, was bring a homemade clock to school. He likes to build things, and he’d wanted to impress his science teacher, so he pieced together digital clock components in a metal pencil case. His science teacher thought it was interesting. But another teacher thought it might be a bomb. School officials contacted the police. He was hauled out of class and interrogated, even after it had become clear that the device posed no threat and that it was, as he claimed repeatedly, just a clock. Eventually, incredibly, he was arrested for supposedly bringing a hoax bomb to school. (After a brief investigation, Irving police closed the case without charges.)
The one piece of the story you can’t see in the photo? His faith. He is a Muslim, in a town—and a region and state, for that matter—recently roiled by acts of discrimination against Muslims.
Was this another example of that so-called Islamophobia? Would a white student, some kid named John or Andrew or Mark who’s Christian or Jewish, have been treated this way? It’s an uncomfortable question to answer. We can never really know what’s in people’s hearts. But perhaps we don’t need to. The fact we must confront, with all its attendant context, is that he isn’t white. He isn’t Christian or Jewish. And his name isn’t John or Andrew or Mark. It’s Ahmed Mohamed.
In some ways, his story is quintessentially American. His father, Mohamed Elhassan Mohamed, is an immigrant from Sudan, born in a small village along the White Nile in 1961, during the country’s first civil war, which lasted seventeen years. He earned a philosophy degree from the Cairo University branch in Khartoum and came to the United States in the mid-eighties, not long after Sudan had fallen into its second bloody civil war. He ended up selling hot dogs for a time on the streets of New York City before moving to the Dallas area, where he delivered pizzas and drove taxis. But he began to build his career, enrolling in a local community college and running his own cab company. He got married and grew his family, living in the comfortable suburb of Irving between stints back in Sudan. Ahmed is one of seven children; he’s obsessed with math and science and electronics. “He fixed my phone, my car, my computer,” his father told the Dallas Morning News. “He is a very smart, brilliant kid.”
Elhassan Mohamed has maintained his connections to Sudan. He even ran for president in 2010 and 2015, representing the National Reform Party. His campaigns were largely symbolic, consisting of a website and a video in which he pledges to implement democratic reforms. Sudanese elections are preordained affairs. Since 1989 the country has been ruled by a dictator named Omar al-Bashir, who seized power in a military coup. Bashir has crushed political dissent and instituted a form of sharia law. He’s the first sitting president ever indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, for his government’s campaign of genocide in Darfur.
Given that Elhassan Mohamed and his family have prospered in North Texas, you can understand why he sounded so pro-America during press conferences following his son’s arrest. But like so many immigrants in our history, they have felt the sting of discrimination. Elhassan Mohamed said he believed his son was detained because of his name and religion. With all that’s happened in Texas recently, can we blame him?
Irving, located immediately west of downtown Dallas, is now one of the most diverse communities in the state. It has a thriving Islamic community, though it’s difficult to know how big that community is. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t track religious affiliation; by some estimates, Texas has more Muslim residents than any other state, at nearly half a million. Still, they’re a distinct minority and not always made to feel welcome.
Some residents in the small town of Farmersville, northeast of Dallas, recently fought plans for an Islamic burial ground in their community. In the town of Garland, east of Dallas, two followers of ISIS opened fire during an anti-Islamic cartoon contest in May. And who can forget Belton state representative Molly White, who made national headlines in January by asking Muslims visiting her office on Texas Muslim Capitol Day to pledge loyalty to the United States?
But no one epitomizes Texas’s recent flirtation with Islamophobia more than Irving mayor Beth Van Duyne. A magna cum laude graduate of Cornell University, Van Duyne is a rising star in the Texas tea party for supposedly saving Irving from sharia law. In reality, Van Duyne proposed a nonbinding city council resolution that supported a bill in the Legislature (which didn’t pass) that would have prevented Texas courts from adopting sharia—as if that were even a possibility. There is a tribunal of imams, based in Dallas, that handles disputes between Muslims according to a version of sharia. The tribunal essentially conducts religious arbitration and has almost nothing to do with the civil courts. In fact, as D Magazine noted earlier this year, the Catholic Diocese of Dallas has a similar tribunal, which has elicited no such outrage. Yet Van Duyne has spoken out against the tribunal repeatedly, telling Glenn Beck, who is now based in nearby Las Colinas, “I think you need to put your foot down and say, ‘This is America. We have laws here already.’”
After Ahmed’s arrest, Van Duyne continued her fearmongering. She took to Facebook to defend the arrest and then, in her latest visit to Beck’s TV show, on September 21, called Ahmed’s clock a “hoax bomb,” though that statement contradicts the conclusions of Irving police. She then played along while Beck and Jim Hanson, who holds himself out as a security expert, ruminated on whether Ahmed’s clock was a publicity stunt somehow tied to a wider effort by Islamists to bring sharia law to Texas. “My theory is that for some reason Irving is important to the Islamists—not the Muslims, but the Islamists,” Beck said. “This is just the place where they’re just going to start planting the seeds and taking a stand. . . . Can you explain it any other way?”
You need not spend much time poking around the Internet or reading online comments to realize that many on the far right see this fourteen-year-old and his family as part of some kind of radical plot. For the record, Elhassan Mohamed has long practiced Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism, and is a founder of the Sufi center in Irving. Sunni extremist groups don’t exactly hold Sufis in high regard. Moreover, if Elhassan Mohamed wanted to live under sharia, he could simply do so in Sudan. Instead, his vision for his homeland, as he outlined in his 2010 campaign video, is a country dedicated to “health care, women’s rights, free press.” If he’s a radical Islamist, he’s doing an excellent job of hiding it.
But whatever you think of the kid and his clock, there remains one undisputed part of the story that most Americans should find troubling: his arrest. It’s understandable that a teacher was alarmed by the clock in a metal case. Perhaps it’s even reasonable that the police were called. But at that point, the misunderstanding should have been easily cleared up. Someone could have talked to the science teacher or called Ahmed’s parents or both. His baseless arrest and detention is an outrageous overreaction, though sadly one that’s not uncommon.
Texas has a well-earned reputation for criminalizing youth, and Irving ISD especially so. The district sent more students to the juvenile justice system than all but four other districts in the 2013–2014 school year, according to the Texas Observer’s analysis of state data. Advocates often refer to the school-to-prison pipeline, a system in which often-minor misbehavior is ticketed by the police or too harshly punished by the school. Texas has made recent reforms to address this issue, but as Ahmed’s experience makes clear, we still like to treat teens like adult offenders.
In fact, even after police cleared Ahmed, the school still suspended him for three days for unknown reasons. (According to state data, Texas schools punished 1,463 students for making a terrorist threat in 2013–2014.) Ahmed won’t be returning to MacArthur, and the teen has been whisked off on an international tour that includes visits to Google, the United Nations, Qatar, and perhaps the White House.
What he leaves behind are troubling questions about why he was treated this way. The answer may lie in the one emotion that runs through so much of our politics now: fear.
Our culture is drowning in it. We have one presidential candidate who says a Muslim shouldn’t be permitted to lead the country. And another candidate—currently the top-polling Republican, no less—decrying the criminals and rapists pouring across our border. Recently, at a campaign event, a questioner said to Donald Trump, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American. We have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?” Trump responded, “We are going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”
For years, politicians, interest groups, and corporations have stoked our fears, preyed on and profited from them. Now we seem to perceive threats, real and imagined, more than ever. We fear terrorism and sharia law, immigrants, crime, and, apparently, our own public school students.
And what a strange time to be afraid. We’re living longer. Violent crime has been declining for decades. You’re more likely to die driving to work than in a terrorist attack, and even those odds are pretty low if you’ve got those side-impact airbags. The economy is stable. In nearly every sense, Americans are healthier and more secure than at any time in our history. Yet in our public discourse, we seem addicted to fear and distrust.
Texas has long been known for its creativity, individualism, friendliness, and oil. We’ve still got all those attributes—though a little less oil—but we’re now often linked to fear and hate. How long until Texas is defined principally by anger and paranoia? If you want a glimpse of what that future might look and feel like, it’s right there in that picture of a skinny fourteen-year-old in handcuffs.