#IStandWithAhmed: A Case of Islamophobia or An Appropriate Reaction to School Safety Threats?

BY: CHANTELLE MELENDEZ

On Monday, September 14th, 2015, Ahmed Mohamed, a fourteen-year-old freshman student at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, was handcuffed, detained, and subsequently suspended from school for constructing a homemade clock, which officials believed to resemble a bomb, and then bringing it to school.[1] Since then, Ahmed’s case has gained enormous attention; many support his skill and ambition in the face of adversity, while others feel that the school’s response was acceptable and appropriate in the light of surrounding circumstances.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a phobia is an “exaggerated, usually inexplicable fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation.”[2] Recently, a particular phobia has gained momentum in Western culture and society: Islamophobia.[3] According to researchers and policy groups, Islamophobia may be defined as: “…[A]n exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusions of Muslims from social, political, and civic life.”[4]

Research suggests that anti-Muslim sentiment in the West may be the result of skewed impressions regarding the prevalence of Muslim-American terrorism.[5] Since 9/11, the U.S. has identified less than 200 Muslim terrorist suspects, constituting just a small fraction of the many thousands of violent acts taking place in this country every year.[6] According to a recent Gallup poll, “about one-half of nationally representative samples of [major religious groups] agree that in general, most Americans are prejudiced toward Muslim-Americans.”[7] Moreover, the study illustrates a possible correlation between anti-Muslim sentiment and ties to the Republican Party.[8] Compared with 17% of Democrats and 7% of Independents, about 50% of subjects who reported heightened levels of prejudice toward Muslims identified the Republican Party as their political affiliation.[9] One such current example of apparent anti-Muslim sentiment is U.S. Republican presidential candidate, Ben Carson, who is currently under fire for claiming that a Muslim should not be in the Oval Office.[10] Specifically, during NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Mr. Carson stated that he “would not advocate that [voters] put a Muslim in charge of this nation,” and that he “absolutely would not agree with that.”[11]

On the other hand, many believe MacArthur High School reacted appropriately to a potential school safety threat. According to the Irving Independent School District, the school took “immediate and necessary precautions” in response to what officials believed to be a homemade bomb.[12] Irving police chief Larry Boyd went on to state, “[w]e live in an age where you can’t take things like that to school.”[13]

Since Columbine, schools across the country have encountered a significant increase in bomb threats.[14] Between January 1990 and February 2002, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) recorded 1,055 incidents of bomb-related safety threats to American schools.[15] Although many involve fake, or “hoax,” bombs, all such threats are generally treated under the assumption that a real bomb is present.[16] Moreover, U.S. law “tends to treat false bomb threats almost as severely as real bomb threats and makes little exception for juveniles.”[17] Because many schools have historically handled such situations rather inadequately, it may be argued that MacArthur High School’s response to what school officials believed resembled a homemade explosive device, rather than a ninth grader’s creative science experiment, was both acceptable and reasonable behavior.

Perhaps Ahmed’s case cannot simply be categorized as being either a clear-cut case of Islamophobia or an appropriate reaction to a possible school safety threat. Perhaps both are at play here. The Irving Independent School District may have justifiably taken necessary precautionary measures to protect its students from a potential safety threat by quickly addressing the issue, involving local authorities, and subsequently questioning Ahmed regarding the project.[18] It is equally possible that a presence of Islamophobia aggravated the situation; it seems particularly harsh that Ahmed was denied an opportunity to contact his parents, removed from school grounds in handcuffs by police, and then fingerprinted.[19]

How can we, as a nation, achieve the balance of encouraging student creativity and ingenuity with school safety and perceived threat? How can we work to eradicate racial bias and discrimination in our society, and more specifically, in our school system? If operated carefully and sensibly, schools across the country should ideally aim not only to provide a real sense of safety and security, but also to afford their students a positive learning environment that allows for amity, community, encouragement, and understanding, even in the presence of diversity amongst its faculties and student bodies.


 

[1] Manny Fernandez & Christine Hauser, Handcuffed for Making Clock, Ahmed Mohamed, 14, Wins Time With Obama, N.Y. Times (Sept. 16, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/17/us/texas-student-is-under-police-investigation-for-building-a-clock.html.

[2] Gallup, Inc., Islamophobia: Understanding Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the West. (Oct. 2014), http://www.gallup.com/poll/157082/islamophobia-understanding-anti-muslim-sentiment-west.aspx.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Gallup, Inc.Islamophobia: Understanding Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the West. (Oct. 2014), http://www.gallup.com/poll/157082/islamophobia-understanding-anti-muslim-sentiment-west.aspx.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Ed Demaria, Ben Carson Does Not Believe a Muslim Should Be President, NBC (Sept. 20, 2015), http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/ben-carson-does-not-believe-muslim-should-be-president-n430431.

[11] See id.

[12] Ashley Fantz, Steve Almasy, & AnneClaire Stapleton, Muslim teen Ahmed Mohamed creates clock, shows teachers, gets arrested, CNN (Sept. 16, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/16/us/texas-student-ahmed-muslim-clock-bomb/.

[13] See id.

[14] Graeme R. Newman, Bomb Threats in Schools, U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (Aug. 2011), https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=258822.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Sarah Kaplan & Abby Phillip, ‘They thought it was a bomb’: 9th-grader arrested after bringing a home-built clock to school, Washington Post (Sept. 16, 2015), http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/09/16/they-thought-it-was-a-bomb-ahmed-mohamed-texas-9th-grader-arrested-after-bringing-a-home-built-clock-to-school/.

[19] See id.


Chantelle Melendez is a 2017 Staff Editor of the Race and Social Justice Law Review.

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