Last week, a 14-year-old Muslim American student named Ahmed Mohamed brought a homemade clock to his Texas-area high school. As most readers will know, he was arrested because school administrators believed that Ahmed’s clock could be a bomb.
Mohamed’s arrest has been the focus of a great deal of media attention. Among conservatives, because of their obsessions with Muslim and Arab “terrorism,” Ahmed’s arrest is justifiable caution and solid police work. For liberals, progressives and other people of conscience, the arrest is one more example of rampant Islamophobia and bigotry.
Political commentator Bill Maher even went so far as to suggest on Friday’s episode of his HBO show “Real Time,” that Ahmed Mohamed's detention was understandable, because he is a Muslim boy and people of his age and religious demographic are especially violent and dangerous. By Maher’s logic, a minute percentage of Muslims are “terrorists,” therefore all Muslims should be presumed guilty of terrorism until proven otherwise—especially if they bring homemade clocks to school.
In all, this is one more example of racism and bigotry as American public policy, an event perfectly timed for insurgent Republican candidates for president like Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
As has been pointed out much already, the controversy about a Muslim American child and a clock that could potentially be a “bomb” is also a classic example of white racial paranoiac thinking. White children who excel in science and engineering and bring homemade clocks to school are to be praised for their innovation; Muslim American boys who do the same thing are viewed as de facto terrorists.
But the controversy over Ahmed Mohamed’s clock also obscures larger and more important issues.
The arrest of Ahmed Mohamed is part of a larger pattern, what Henry Giroux Jr. and others have described as the “school to prison” pipeline. This culture of cruelty, surveillance and terror targets black and brown youth for unfair and disproportionate punishment in America’s schools.
The United States is a society organized around prisons and incarceration. Black and brown bodies, and the poor and working class more generally, are fuel for the profits made by both the private and public prison systems. Young boys and girls such as Ahmed Mohamed are grabbed by this system for being “disruptive” or “violent” -- while white children in the same situation are labeled as “precocious” or “high energy” -- and often suspended or placed in alternative schools that often most closely resemble prisons and jails, and then almost inevitably incarcerated as adults.
Bill Maher and others who view Muslim-Americans as the greatest threat to America’s safety and security are quite selective in their worries about “terrorism” and school violence. As reported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and West Point’s Center for Combating Terrorism Center, it is not Muslim Americans who are the greatest terrorist to the “homeland”: In the post 9/11 era, white male conservatives have been responsible for the most terrorism in the United States. White men commit a disproportionate percentage of the mass shootings in the United States.
(School shootings are also an area where white boys and teens excel in their violence: Like their older white peers, the latter group is responsible for the vast majority of mass school shootings.)
While White America bemoans and trembles at the thought of terrorism by ambiguously brown “Muslims” and “Arabs,” it is simultaneously engaging in a very common type of white privilege and racial historical amnesia. From the Ku Klux Klan (the largest terrorist organization in United States history) to white racial pogroms against black and brown communities, organized land theft, and police violence in the present, white Americans have shown themselves to be the United States’ most expert terrorists. White America imagines itself as benign. The historical record proves otherwise.
Bill Maher, Sarah Palin and others on both the left and the right, who see young Ahmed Mohamed as a potential terrorist because of his religion and skin color, are advocating collective punishment. The lazy thinking that comes with presumptions of guilt before innocence is the logic that sustains racial profiling, harassment and thuggery by the police and others who have the backing of the State to commit violence and “legal” murder against people of color.
The global color line is real. It targets black bodies for unjust and unfair punishment in the United States. The same racial logic is used to justify the harassment and incarceration of “Muslims” and “Arabs” in both the United States and abroad.
If Bill Maher and the other white male pundits were truly afraid of terrorism, they would look in the mirror, and then encourage the police and other authorities to racially profile and harass white men. The Columbine shooters were white and male: They shot dead (and tried to bomb) 12 of their fellow classmates and one teacher. Dylann Roof, also white and male, killed nine black people in an act of racial terrorism. There are many dozens of white men and teens who have committed or planned similar terrorist acts in the United States … and very few of them look like Ahmed Mohamed.