Muslim student detained for building a clock

A ninth-grade Texas student was detained by police after bringing an experimental clock, which school officials thought might be a bomb, to school to show an engineering teacher, the Dallas Morning News reports.

Although Ahmed Mohamed, 14, was suspended from school and briefly in custody and handcuffed, no charges have been filed. The school has not commented on the incident, citing student privacy laws, but Twitter is lighting up with information about what happened, the New York Times reports.

President Barack Obama tweeted his support for the MacArthur High School freshman from Irving, Texas. Ahmed invented and built a clock, and the president said he’d like to see the clock, inviting Ahmed to the White House:

Other Twitter users have been poking fun at the school and police:

Probably not racism or Islamophobia

While I don’t believe Ahmed should have been handcuffed—officials said it was for their safety as well as his—I think the real story here, at the end of the day, is that we need to encourage scientific experimentation and engineering trial and error wherever possible. That means allowing the occasional exploration and development of electronics or devices that don’t look like we might expect. That’s the nature of invention, and Ahmed is an inventor.

He maintained from the beginning that the device was a clock, not a bomb, and that should have been that. I think school officials were paranoid here, not because Ahmed was a Muslim but because they had no idea what the device was and may have opened up a legal wormhole by interrogating him with police without his parents present. Not recognizing the device as a clock meant they had to decide if they could trust him. Apparently they did not, and that may be racism or Islamophobia, but it may also be something else that has nothing to do with Ahmed’s religious beliefs. That could be even more trouble for the school, because their failure to evacuate immediately indicates they didn’t really believe it was a bomb.

I sincerely hope this has a happy ending and that Ahmed goes on to study at MIT, which is his hope, to invent some wonderful things that help his fellow citizens of the world, and to get those three days back that were lost in an errant suspension.

As for this incident, I also believe that school officials need to develop trust in students over time, including Muslim students and smart, young boys. Ahmed is a freshman, which means he was probably known but not well known to the teacher who turned him in, and a bit of empathy for her or his situation must be found in our hearts.

It sounds like an honest mistake of a teacher not knowing what the device was and not knowing Ahmed well enough to trust him. That’s a shame, but it’s not racism or Islamophobia. It could easily be viewed as a teacher and police erring on the side of caution, but in a world today where we’re fighting against terrorism and religious fundamentalism, I suppose the knee-jerk reaction to label this as Islamophobia can be expected.

I think school officials and police did err in this case, since clearly the clock Ahmed had invented was not a bomb or even a fake bomb, but we all need to learn a few lessons.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.