The Clock Incident: How Associations Responded to Muslim Teen’s Arrest

Muslim advocacy groups and the maker movement were quick to speak up for Ahmed Mohamed, the teenager whose his handmade clock led to his arrest. Meanwhile, an education group defended school officials, saying they had a responsibility to ensure safety.

It was a story that was hard to miss this week—even the president noticed it.

The handmade clock built by Irving, Texas, teenager Ahmed Mohamed became an unlikely political fireball after he brought the device to school and then was arrested, the result of a MacArthur High School teacher’s concern that the clock might be a bomb.

The situation led to a loud public outcry over the school’s action and what it implied. Some of the world’s brightest tech and political minds weighed in as well. Associations representing educators, tech groups, and Islamic rights played key roles as the story drew major attention in the press. Some highlights:

Islamic council takes lead in defending Ahmed. The North Texas chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations helped organize a press conference and criticized the school’s actions. “This all raises a red flag for us: how Irving’s government entities are operating in the current climate,” the group’s executive director, Alia Salem, told the Dallas Morning News. “We’re still investigating, but it seems pretty egregious.” (Above, Salem is shown being interviewed with Ahmed on MSNBC’s All in WIth Chris Hayes.) The group added that anti-Islamic incidents have been on the rise in Irving in recent months.

Under the current climate that exists in this country, you can’t really blame them because when they see something like that, they have to react.

Is a climate of fear to blame? The Islamic Association of North Texas, meanwhile, said the actions of city officials were a natural result of the current cultural climate. “We’re not pointing a finger at the school district or the police department,” Khalid Hamideh, a spokesman for the association, told NBC News. “Under the current climate that exists in this country, you can’t really blame them because when they see something like that, they have to react.”

Hackers welcome Ahmed. Ahmed may not have found supporters at school, but a community of tech-heads was quick to welcome him to the fold. TheLab.ms, a nonprofit hacker space in nearby Dallas, offered him a free yearlong membership in the group, and the Dallas Hackers Association invited him to speak at its next meeting—with the goal of keeping him interested in engineering. “He just started school, he’s excited and wants to impress his teachers so he brings this in and, boom, he’s arrested,” the pseudonymously named Tinker, a co-organizer of the association, told Vice Media’s Motherboard site. “They put him in handcuffs. That’s a frightening experience that can make you lose complete trust in authority and can make you not want to reach out anymore about [hacking and engineering].”

Texas educators stress safety. The Association of Texas Professional Educators chose not to discuss Ahmed’s situation in particular when interviewed by local news station KEYE but noted that safety is often a primary consideration. “I think what’s at the top of their mind is to keep the students and faculty safe. So, in certain incidents they might have to report something that might not usually be seen as a weapon but could be,” APTE’s Stephanie Jacksis told the station. Speaking to the Dallas Morning News, Jacksis added: “A lot of times teachers would rather be safe than sorry.”

What role does zero tolerance play? Another group raised questions about so-called zero-tolerance policies in schools. Michael Gilbert, a University of Texas-San Antonio associate professor who serves as executive director of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice, noted that such policies, which are strong in Texas, can lead to overreactions. While safety is important, common sense has to factor into decisions, he said. “We end up disciplining kids instead of talking to them about how to make better decisions,” Gilbert told the Dallas Morning News. “The problem is not the kids. It’s us—adults.”

Ahmed and his family say that he won’t be returning to MacArthur.

A homemade clock made by Ahmed Mohamed is seen in a picture released by the Irving, Texas, Police Department. (Irving Texas Police Department/Reuters)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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