A demonstrator at the site of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” the planned Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan
On Monday, September 14th, Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old from Irving, Texas, brought a clock to school. The teenager had made the clock himself from a pencil case to impress his teacher. However, his invention was met with a reaction contrary to his expectations. After the clock went off in class, another teacher called the police. Ahmed was arrested later that day and interrogated for making a “hoax bomb.”
It is unquestionable that Ahmed Mohamed was arrested because he is Muslim. The suspicion and fear with which Muslims have been regarded in the U.S. – and in much of the world for that matter – in recent history is obvious. The term Islamophobia has become part of common jargon and isn’t going away any time soon. No doubt Ahmed has encountered it before; it is highly likely that he has discussed it previously with his parents. However, on Monday, this 14-year-old boy was thrust into the middle of America’s response to Islamic terrorism, a response that has and continues to devastate countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as well as affecting the livelihoods of Muslims living in the U.S. itself.
Ahmed has most likely experienced instances of subtle – or not so subtle – prejudice from ignorant and bigoted individuals in the society that surrounds him in the past. However, now this boy has been criminalised and assaulted for something he played no part in, indeed for something that happened close to the time of his own birth. His experience of Islamophobia has gone beyond social tensions, this time resulting in his political disenfranchisement at the hands of an aggressive and discriminatory criminal justice system. This young man, who is just beginning to form his opinions of the world and the people who populate it, has been made politically aware not by choice, but by force. He does not have the luxury of “youthful innocence.” His youth is political – and, in the eyes of the law, dangerous.
This is not an isolated incident of youth politicisation: for other groups whose adults are characterised as dangerous and criminal, their children also inherit these labels. In 2013, Kiera Wilmot, a black 16-year-old girl from Florida, was expelled from school, arrested, and charged with two felonies after an experiment she was working on exploded. From Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Tamir Rice, black youth across the U.S. continually confront discriminatory treatment and even violence at the hands of law enforcement. By the time children of marginalised and oppressed groups reach adulthood, they have already come into contact with the harsh reality of America’s white supremacist society.
Cases such as Ahmed’s, once elevated to a level of national and even international interest, can become rallying calls for multiple political agendas. Not only right-wing news outlets, but even progressive political pundits such as Bill Maher – who, admittedly, is known for his Islamophobic rants – have expressed support for the decision to arrest 14-year-old Ahmed, citing the young Muslim men who have “[blown] up a lot of shit around the world” over the past 30 years as evidence. Ahmed, a Muslim American citizen from Texas – along with all young Muslim men around the world – has been painted with the same brush as Islamic extremists and terrorists. He may view himself as American, just like everyone else, but he is treated by society, by the criminal justice system, by the media, and by politicians – cue Sarah Palin: “That’s a clock, and I’m the Queen of England!” – as a threatening “other,” worthy of suspicion and aggression. How, then, will American society react to the coming influx of Syrian refugees?
Over the next few years, the U.S. is poised to accept tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the Syrian crisis. These people will face a myriad of challenges in adjusting to life in the U.S., such as “enduring a highly bureaucratic resettlement process, finding work in a foreign country, learning a new language and navigating daily life.” Undoubtedly, these refugees will also experience Islamophobia, both in their daily interactions with Americans and in the coverage of their resettlement in the media and in politics. How much more, though, would the children of Syrian refugees experience than what Ahmed has been subjected to? If something as small as Obama’s tweet inviting Ahmed to showcase his clock at the White House entices allegations of “victimhood,” how much louder would the voices be that cry out in indignation at America’s accommodation of victims of a civil war thousands of miles away?
Ahmed’s case highlights the pervasive Islamophobia present in all facets of modern American life. On a broader scale, it also highlights the vulnerability of children of marginalised and oppressed groups towards not just the same prejudice that their parents face, but also the same forms of institutionalised humiliation and violence. At a time when the U.S. is poised to be thrust yet further into the affairs of the Middle East, including taking in thousands of Syrian children and their families, such tendencies, unless properly addressed, could escalate quickly and dangerously.
Adrian Jennings is a sophomore at Wheaton College, studying Chinese and Mathematics.