On Sept. 14 in Irving, Texas, fourteen-year-old Muslim student Ahmed Mohamed brought a homemade alarm clock to school. The clock was contained in a square, black pencil case with an array of wires running from the computer board to the battery to the on-and-off switch.
Mohamed's first period teacher praised him on his creativity. But when the clock went off during his third period class, he took the clock out of his bag to turn the alarm off. Mistaking it for a bomb, his English teacher reported it to the principal, who called the police.
What followed was an arrest at the school and a three-day suspension.
But these weren't the only two results of this unfortunate debacle. Instead, Mohamed also received support from all over the United States as the story quickly grew into a national debate: people across the country were quick to unite around a case of blatant Islamophobia. The hashtag “#IStandwithAhmed” was created and soon trended on Twitter and other social media sites. Scores of people sent out their support to Ahmed and disdain for the actions of the administration and police.
Ahmed’s case was initially popularized in the media as a case of Islamophobia. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, discrimination against the Muslim population in the United States has been a significant cultural problem. Now, with a humanitarian crisis in Syria and the United States planning to increase the number of Syrian refugees to the US, our country encounters a time when positive social change and the destigmatization of the Islamic religion is necessary. However, as the issue matured, the case started gaining popularity for another reason: Instead of focusing on why he was detained, different corporations started to capitalize on the fact that he was pursuing a STEM education.
NASA tweeted, “we’re supporters of #STEM & inspiring kids like Ahmed to pursue their dreams.” Microsoft showered Ahmed with a host of gifts and “couldn’t wait to see what he created from them.” Reddit and Twitter both offered Mohamed internships. Google promised to reserve a spot for Mohamed at its weekend science fair. Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked him to visit campus. Even Mark Zuckerberg said he would love to meet Mohamed and encouraged him to “continue building.”
While I am sure that Mohamed appreciates encouragement in the wake of a race-based attack, the shift of media attention from the issue of Islamophobia to STEM education was misguided. Addressing an issue like the need for stronger STEM education is a noble cause. However, this does not warrant a distraction from reversing a prominent cause for discrimination in the United States. Media attention surrounding the Islamophobia that Ahmed experienced was a potential avenue to raise awareness.
Tweets from these corporations focused on enlightening millions about the detrimental effects of Islamophobia on promising, young students would have been profoundly effective. A personal letter from Mark Zuckerberg praising his intellect would have meant the same, or possibly even more, to Mohamed than a Facebook post. When two virtuous objectives compete, it is hard to say that one is more righteous than the other. However, when Islamophobia is a key point in presidential debates, an issue for police enforcement, and an issue that affects even our youngest citizens, we must give it the attention it deserves.
Emma Houston CM '19 is from Boston, Massachusetts and is interested in majoring in Philosophy and Physics.