Many people are framing the arrest of student Ahmed Mohamed at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas on Monday in terms of Mohamed’s race and religion. The argument goes that a white and non-Muslim student would not have been arrested as was Mohamed for bringing to school a home-assembled clock that school workers and police say looks like a bomb.
Even if convincing evidence does come to light indicating Mohamed’s race or religion was the determining factor leading to his arrest, which is not the case of yet, it is a mistake to think that other students are immune from such treatment because they are white or non-Muslim. Such thinking will also stand in the way of ending the systematic abuse of students that allowed Mohamed’s arrest to occur.
The race and religion framing of Mohamed’s abuse has been pushed much in the media since Mohamed was arrested, irrespective of whether there is any evidence supporting the characterization. For example, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, in an MSNBC interview, asserted “the clear understanding that this would not have happened to somebody who wasn’t named ‘Ahmed Mohamed,’ who didn’t have brown skin, who wasn’t of Sudanese heritage.”
And what is the basis for this conclusion? A “gut level” understanding. Continues Hooper, “I mean, we just at a gut level understand that that would not have occurred the way it occurred if the circumstances or if his background had been different.”
Nihad Awad, CAIR’s executive director and co-founder, interviewed Thursday on the PBS Newshour, provided a prime example of the jump by many people to characterize Mohamed’s abuse with the label “Islamophobia.” In response to interviewer Hari Sreenivasen’s first question of “So tell me about your contact with the family,” Awad answers in part:
When this happened to the family, the family contacted our office in Dallas, and we recognized that this was another case of unfortunate Islamophobia and targeting of young people just because of their faith tradition, not because of their deeds or their behavior.This characterization is in line with CAIR’s new 25-second promotional video that couples the popular hashtag #IStandWithAhmed and CAIR’s islamophobia.org website.
CAIR has significantly contributed to disseminating information and opinion regarding Mohamed’s abuse, even holding the Wednesday press conference featuring Mohamed, members of his family, and his lawyer on the front lawn of Mohamed’s Irving home.
Writing in The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald made an effort to present some actual reasoning, instead of just hurled assertions, to support the belief that Mohamed’s abuse, or at least some extent of his abuse, is due to some or all of his abusers’ perception of Mohamed’s religion. Greenwald presents the demonization of Muslims that has come with the United States government’s wars in Muslim-majority countries across the world, as well as negative attitudes toward Muslims held by some Americans and, he suggests, by the mayor and some city council members of Irving, to support the contention that Mohamed was targeted because of Mohamed’s religion.
Greenwald also offers support in the form of Mohamed’s telling of a comment one cop made and how Mohamed felt after hearing the comment:
When he was brought into the room to be questioned by the four police officers who had been dispatched to the school, one of them — who had never previously seen him — said: “Yup. That’s who I thought it was.” As a result, he “felt suddenly conscious of his brown skin and his name — one of the most common in the Muslim religion.”Maybe if Mohamed were not brown, not Muslim, or not either, he would not have been abused, or the abuse would have terminated earlier. Yet, the points Greenwald offers provide no more than reasons to investigate that possibility. The points are certainly not dispositive that even the tiniest fraction of the abuse Mohamed suffered is due to any perceptions of his religion or race.
Government high schools in Texas are generally overseen by elected school boards, not by city councils and mayors. Nevertheless, expressed views of politicians from around the school district’s geographic area may indeed provide some reason to dig more for a religion or race-based motive for Mohamed’s abuse. Similarly, the existence of anti-Muslim attitudes in America may provide reason to suspect that such attitudes played a role, even a major role, in Mohamed’s abuse or in the extent of that abuse. But, in no way does the existence of such attitudes establish that those attitudes motivated the abuse of Mohamed or even that such attitudes were held in some degree by people who abused Mohamed.
Further, whether the cop’s quoted comment has anything whatsoever to do with Mohamed’s religion or race is not at all clear. That Mohamed interprets the comment as he does provides a window into Mohamed’s thinking, not into the thinking of the quoted cop.
If people weren’t stirring up fear and hatred to support the US government’s seemingly unending wars across the world, and if those wars were ended so the threat of blowback could recede, it certainly makes sense that less students, like Mohamed, would be wrongfully arrested. Given that the pro-war talk often frames the enemy in terms of the Muslim religion and, as Greenwald notes, the US government “has spent decades waging various forms of war against predominantly Muslim countries — bombing seven of them in the last six years alone,” it also seems reasonable to suspect that Muslim students are subjected to such abuse at a higher rate than are non-Muslim students. But, none of this general conjecture provides the slightest bit of evidence that any of the abuse Mohamed suffered is due to school officials’ or cops’ perceptions related to Mohamed’s religion or race.
Many students who are white and non-Muslim are abused by school officials and cops for purported reasons just as preposterous as the reasons asserted for Mohamed’s arrest. Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead persuasively presented the case this week that the abuse of students in America by school officials and cops is pervasive and destructive. Whitehead gives an overview of the problem, stretching across religious and racial lines, in his article “Public School Students Are the New Inmates in the American Police State,” stating:
From the moment a child enters one of the nation’s 98,000 public schools to the moment she graduates, she will be exposed to a steady diet of draconian zero tolerance policies that criminalize childish behavior, overreaching anti-bullying statutes that criminalize speech, school resource officers (police) tasked with disciplining and/or arresting so-called “disorderly” students, standardized testing that emphasizes rote answers over critical thinking, politically correct mindsets that teach young people to censor themselves and those around them, and extensive biometric and surveillance systems that, coupled with the rest, acclimate young people to a world in which they have no freedom of thought, speech or movement.By all means, people should look for credible evidence that some or all of the abuse Mohamed suffered was motivated by people’s perceptions of his religion or race. But, just to put his abuse in a racial or religious motivation box without credible evidence to support that conclusion is mistaken. Doing so also suggests the nonexistence of the very real systematic infringement of rights of students — both with and without any motivation related to perceptions of the students’ religions or races — that occurs each day in schools across America.
It may make some people feel better to define, without basis, Mohamed’s abuse as just a manifestation of religious or racial animus. But, such an approach does not address the fundamental problem. The approach disregards the systematic abuse of students — across religious and racial lines — and the entrenched policies and procedures supporting such abuse. Failing to take on the systematic problem directly will allow many more students like Mohamed to be similarly abused.
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