Notes from America: Why Ahmed got arrested and Malala got a Nobel prize

Ahmed Tharwat
8 Min Read
Ahmed Tharwat

Ahmed Mohamed, the young inventor, and Malala Yousafzai, the young women rights advocate, both have a story. However, each story has a different narrative and a different ending.

Ahmed and Malala are both Muslims and were both victims of ignorance, bigotry and a self-righteous mindset, and they both became household names. Ahmed was a victim of a culture of hatred and Islamophobia hiding under the name of national security, and Malala was a victim of a criminal on the run hiding in mountains. Ahmed was a victim of a racist western educator and education system; Malala was a victim of individuals who hated the Western education system.

Ahmed was arrested and thrown in police custody for bringing a homemade clock to class. Malala won a Nobel Prize and was thrown in Western propaganda custody for bringing Western ideas to her school. I am not, by any means, comparing the level of the crime committed against the two victims, but I am comparing the nature of the crime. A non-educated person shot Malala in the head with a bullet and she fought for her life; Ahmed was just arrested for a few days and his idea was shot down by his own teacher and his own school.

Ahmed’s story started when the 14-year-old high school freshman attempted to make a good impression for his new teachers at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas. He brought a hand-built alarm clock to his engineering class, and school officials were indeed alarmed: they thought the clock resembled a bomb. As good American citizens, the school official called the police and had the young inventor arrested.

Within 24 hours, Ahmed Mohamed received an invitation to the White House and support from Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mark Zuckerberg. A moment of head-spinning attention, as questions arose due to his name and his religion: did bigotry target Ahmed? As a result, a 14-year-old freshman found himself in a social media hurricane that reflected the United States’ intense debates about Islam, immigration and ethnicity.

“Cool clock, Ahmed,” President Obama said on Twitter. “Want to bring it to the White House?”  The story of Ahmed showed the best of America as a nation of fair and justice-seeking people. In a few days, Ahmed’s story brought forth massive numbers of #IStandWithAhmed supporters on Twitter.

The Ahmed clock/bomb story also brought forth the worst of America: it revealed American insecurity and its xenophobic character. Ahmed was mistaken for a terrorist by his own teacher and school official. Despite the attention that Ahmed received from the president and other supporters all over the country; there was lots of self-righteous and negative backlash, especially from the conservative right.

“The despicable backlash against Ahmed Mohamed: It is nothing new for white America to see the gifted ‘other’ as its greatest threat,” wrote Arthur Chu in Salon magazine. “When the left and right start sounding alike on racism and xenophobia, history has taught me to listen,” he added. One-time vice-presidential candidate Sara Palin said on Facebook, sharing a photo of its jumbled parts: “That’s a clock, and I’m the queen of England.” The liberal comedian Bill Maher is now making a daily joke of Ahmed’s invention and the reaction of American liberals.

“The people at the school thought it might be a bomb, perhaps because it looks exactly like a f—ing bomb,” said Maher, known for his not-so-liberal views of Islam. Jim Hansen, of the Center for Security Policy, said the clock “was half a bomb,” as the Intercept reported. “But by that sort of bizarre logic, we would also have to include wingtips, iPhones, Androids, garden fertiliser, soap, rice cookers, Casio watches, atoms, triple-A batteries, Tupperware, pipes, 40s of Mickeys, and firearms as similarly dangerous bomb components,” wrote Justin Moyer of the Washington Post.

This country has a long history of driving away Americans if they are the wrong kind of American – and, perversely, raining down the most distrust and hatred on the most gifted because they are seen as the greatest threat. In contrast, we have the story of Malala. In 2012, one of the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai for advocating education for women in her country of Afghanistan. Malala received global attention, and in 2014, the Nobel Peace Prize was granted to her. She was paraded in the western spotlight, spoke at the UN, and visited the White House. She wrote books, made movies, and even met the Queen of England. In addition, she made Time magazine’s edition of the 100 most influential people.

Not to belittle the tragic attack on young Malala, no one wants to go through an experience that almost cost her her life. Malala was a victim of a vicious attack by a terrorist who rejected Western education. Ahmed was arrested for suspicions of terrorism by a Western school system. While Malala was targeted for advocating Western education, Ahmed was targeted by the Western education system. Malala’s story fits the post-9/11 Western narrative about Islam and Muslims. Ahmed’s story did not; he is a bright young inventor who wanted to impress his teacher. He violated the Western narrative of Islam and Muslims, he violated the Western self-righteous script.

However, Malala’s story upholds this narrative; a young oppressed Muslim woman shot by a Muslim jihadist for defending women’s rights in the Muslim world. Ironically and perversely, Israel has for years been destroying schools, killing young Palestinian students seeking education, and no world condemnation or Nobel prizes have been offered.

Malala’s story made it to the spotlight of our collective conscious; it is the story of a victim of our enemy that needed to be told many times over to reaffirm the Western self-righteous script, but Ahmed’s arrest story, is a story of a victim of our own making; it needs to be rewritten to fit the American script. My name is Ahmed, and #IStandWithBigClocks.

Ahmed Tharwat is host of the Arab-American TV show Belahdan. His articles are published in national and international publications. He blogs at Notes From America, on Follow him on Twitter @AhmediaTV

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Ahmed Tharwat is host of the Arab-American TV show Belahdan. His articles are published in national and international publications.