On Monday afternoon, an unassuming kid—a nerd, a geek, with his glasses and his NASA shirt—was led away from his Irving, Texas, school in handcuffs, for all his classmates to see. A perp walk. His crime was building something that, in the wild imaginations of a security-paranoid society, might be misconstrued as a bomb or, as the police who arrested the young student suggested, a “hoax bomb.” “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation,” a police spokesman said, apparently still unsatisfied with the notion that a kid with an engineering hobby would build a homemade device just for telling the hour. By the time of the city officials’ press conference, the story had become a national embarrassment for Irving, for the schools, the politicians, and the police—and yet the department’s spokesman could not fully grasp the simple truth before him.
The significance of this misunderstanding—though the word seems a drastic understatement—cannot be chalked up simply to the appearance of the homemade digital clock. Instead, we must look to the student’s identity, his name. The clock was made by Ahmed Mohamed, just 14 years old, a dark-skinned boy of Sudanese extraction. Mohamed’s parents had lived in their Irving house for 30 years. As Mohamed was being arrested, one police officer reportedly said, “Yup. That’s who I thought it was.” Uncowed, the Mohamed family gave their own press conference. “As-salam alaykum,” the young inventor began his remarks, tucking his chin into his chest in a moment of brief shyness before letting loose a grin. Ahmed Mohamed built a clock—“He wakes up with it most mornings,” the boy’s father said—and showed America what time it was. The hour was dark.
Mohamed’s ordeal shone a spotlight on our national Islamophobia problem. “That is not America,” Mohamed’s father, Mohamed El Hassan, said of the arrest at a Wednesday-afternoon press conference. Sadly, this was very much America—or at least half of America, with most of the Republican Party drinking from the well of anti-Muslim bigotry. “Fifty percent of those who report a great deal of prejudice toward Muslims”—self-proclaimed bigots—”say they are Republicans,” a Gallup poll analysis on the subject of Islamophobia found, “compared with 17% of those who identify as Democrats and 7% as independents.” Just yesterday, anti-Muslim radicals spray-painted racist slogans on a mosque in Kentucky. Earlier this month, vandals burned the shape of a cross into the lawn of an upstate New York mosque. Last month in Nebraska, someone threw a rock through a mosque window.