Last week, Ahmed Mohamed proudly brought a clock he made to his school. Ahmed, a Muslim 9th grader at MacArthur High School in Texas, was excited to show his clock to his teachers. Despite the fact that Ahmed has never been in trouble, one of his teachers became suspicious and thought it was a bomb.
That teacher complained to the principal, who called the police. When the police officers arrived, they and the principal pulled Ahmed from his classroom and interrogated him for almost an hour and a half. During the interrogation, Ahmed asked if he could call his parents. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Ahmed describes the following experience,
“They told me ‘No, you can’t call your parents. You’re in the middle of an interrogation at the moment.’ They asked me a couple of times, ‘Is it a bomb?’ and I answered a couple of times, ‘It’s a clock.”
And if your heart hasn’t broken for young Ahmed yet, it gets worse. He continued,
“I felt like I was a criminal. I felt like I was a terrorist. I felt like all the names I was called … In middle school I was called a bomb-maker just because of my race and religion.”
After the interrogation, the police handcuffed Ahmed and took him to the police station. The school suspended Ahmed for three days. He was soon released without charges, but the mayor, principal, and police all defend their actions against Ahmed. Chief of Police Larry Boyd claimed, “We live in an age where you can’t take things like that to schools.”
Fortunately, in the face of such fearful absurdity, Ahmed has received an outpouring of support. Social media posts with hashtags #IStandwithAhmed and #EngineersforAhmed have gone viral. Mark Zuckerberg, MIT, Harvard, even Barack Obama has supported Ahmed through social media.
The support lifted Ahmed’s spirit. But this is much bigger than one Muslim boy in Texas, and Ahmed knows it. He told ABC’s Good Morning America that,
“I was scared at the moment, but now I feel really happy. I’m getting all this support from all over the world. And the support isn’t just for me but for everyone who has been through this. I will fight for you if you can’t stand up for yourself.”
Ahmed’s Clock, Mimetic Theory, and Being Human
There are two important strands that run through this story. Both strands teach us about what it means to be human.
According to mimetic theory, humans are created in the image of an “other,” who become the model for our identity. James Alison calls this the “social other.” We become who we are through the eyes of an “other.” We receive our identity, our “selves,” through others. For example, when we are constantly told by others that we are dangerous and to be feared, then we begin to learn that we are dangerous and should be feared.
Human identity is so interdependent that we begin to live into the expectations that others have for us. So, in a sad and tragic way, Officer Larry Boyd was right. We do live in an age where smart and proud Muslim boys can’t bring their clocks to school to show their teachers because a significant portion our society lives in absolute fear of Muslims. It’s not just mean middle school kids who demean Muslims with names like “bomb-maker” and “terrorists.” Those mean middle school kids learn that type of racism and Islamophobia from their models who gave them that fear. In other words, their identities are formed mimetically to fear Muslims as the “other.”
But we don’t have to be formed by negative and fearful models. We can choose to be formed by more positive models. Ahmed gives me hope because he is choosing to be formed by those models who support him. He is choosing to receive his identity from those who look at him through the eyes of compassion and support. The support he is receiving from around the world will do wonders for this boy’s sense of self. If every child was seen through the eyes of compassion and support, the world would be a much better place.
But there’s another step that we need to make in this story. Ahmed is a victim of a culture of fear. The teacher, the principal, the police officers, and the mayor have all been formed by that culture. They are simply fearful pawns in a chess match that is much bigger than themselves. What makes this story even more tragic is that as they turned against Ahmed, many in our culture have turned against them.
But aren’t we justified in turning against them? After all, aren’t they guilty scapegoaters? Yes, but treating guilty people with hostility doesn’t help. Scapegoating the scapegoaters doesn’t help because what’s true about Ahmed is true about those who turned against him. They are formed mimetically, by the social other. If we unite in hostility against them, they will learn that they are hostile people and our hostility against them will only reinforce their sense of fear.
Islam and the Solution to Evil
Fortunately, there is a solution. Those who turned against Ahmed need a better model – one that doesn’t reflect their fear and hostility back to them. And we find that model in Islam, Ahmed’s religious tradition. The Qur’an provides the answer to the negative cycle of fear that we can easily fall into when it states, “Good and evil cannot be equal. Repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend” (surah 41:34).
Repelling evil with evil, violence with violence, hostility with hostility, only makes the world a more evil, violent, and hostile place. It will only lead us to a future of destruction.
The clock is ticking. We had better start repelling evil with what is better – with grace, mercy, and forgiveness – before it’s too late. That is our greatest hope for a better future.
Image: Ahmed Mohamed handcuffed at his school. (Photo: Screen capture from MSNBC’s Youtube Channel)