Most readers will know by now that a 14-year-old kid named Ahmed Mohamed was recently arrested in Irving, Texas for, well, for making a clock while Muslim. Ahmed, an aspiring engineer and a robotics enthusiast, had built a simple digital clock and brought it to his ninth-grade high school classes, hoping to impress his teachers. Instead, one of them called the cops on him, and with the consent of the school principal, five police officers arrested him and took him to a detention center in handcuffs. Ahmed has reported that one officer he’d never seen before looked at him and said, “Yup. That’s who I thought it was.” All charges were soon dropped, and the police admitted that Ahmed had not sought to frighten or harm anyone. But the truth of the matter is not that Ahmed’s invention was mistaken for a bomb, but that his black Muslim body was taken for a bombmaker’s.
What followed is also now well known. Ahmed’s story began to circulate over social media and on the news, and got a huge boost when President Barack Obama tweeted: “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.” Obama’s comment was quickly retweeted more than 438,000 times, and within the next couple of days, Ahmed’s new Twitter account accumulated close to 92,000 followers, with the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed reaching 1.2 million tweets. Ahmed also received expressions of support from other high-profile politicians, celebrities, and industry figures, including Hillary Clinton, Shonda Rhimes and executives at Facebook, Twitter, Google and Ebony magazine. Liberals and progressives largely celebrated this support, citing it as evidence of the enlightenment of the Obama administration, in stark contrast to the Islamophobic, regressive and paranoid politics found in Texas and in the Republican Party. Texas became the foil for Washington: While Texas was mired in anti-Muslim bigotry, Washington was cast as above that.
While Ahmed of course deserves the groundswell of support he has received, hailing his invitation to the White House obscures the fact that the Democratic Party, with President Obama at its helm, is scoring easy political points off of his story. Ahmed is ultimately a popular cause for Obama to align himself with and use to appear levelheaded and magnanimous to his liberal base. (Remember that after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, even President George W. Bush regularly said things like, “Our war is not against Islam, or against faith practiced by the Muslim people” and “There are thousands of Muslims who proudly call themselves Americans, and they know what I know—that the Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion.”) More significantly, Obama’s gesture against Islamophobia obscures how his own administration, and the Democratic Party more broadly, has fostered the anti-Muslim and racist political climate that makes stories like Ahmed’s arrest not the isolated work of the bigoted right, but a downright inevitability.
Obama’s words of support for Ahmed stand in sharp contrast to the violence that his administration has unleashed on brown and black and Muslim and poor people domestically and abroad. Besides continuing to bomb Afghanistan (35 US drones struck in August 2015 alone) and direct the longest war in US history—now entering its fifteenth year—Obama has dramatically expanded the geographical scope of US military strikes, using drones and other weapons to bomb Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. According to even the conservative calculations of the London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism, there have been nine times more drone strikes under Obama than under his predecessor. And in Pakistan alone, more strikes were launched during Obama’s first year in office than during both terms of the Bush presidency. We know that thousands have been killed, and that many have been civilians.
And this is to say nothing of the Obama administration’s pivotal role in the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state, a dispossession which would be impossible without continuous US military aid amounting to $3.1 billion per year. Or the fact that Obama is not only continuing to detain over a hundred Muslim men at Guantánamo Bay—most of whom are suffering their fifteenth year of imprisonment without having been charged with any crime—but is currently directing government lawyers to block efforts by human rights attorneys to release a man like Tariq Ba Odah, who was officially cleared for release years ago and is now “on the precipice of death.” Tariq’s skeletal 74-pound body has been on an unbroken hunger strike for over eight years, during which he has faced excruciating force feedings through nasal tubes twice a day, every day.
Nor does it include the fact that Obama has directed government lawyers to block any legal accountability for the torture of Iraqi civilians by private military contractors working with the US military during the Bush administration.
Nor does it include the fact that for the last six months Obama has authorized political, military and logistical support to the Saudi-led military coalition that has been bombing Yemen, killing over a thousand civilians with its airstrikes, and contributing to what may be the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 21 million people in need of urgent assistance. Human rights activists, Oxfam America and Doctors Without Borders are among the groups criticizing the Obama administration’s ongoing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and Human Rights Watch has suggested that Saudi-led airstrikes on residential areas in Yemen constitute war crimes. But none of this clamor is deterring the Obama administration from finalizing a new $1 billion arms agreement with Riyadh. Grotesquely, the State Department is instead welcoming Saudi Arabia’s new position as head of a key UN human rights panel.
What this litany of violence suggests is not just that Obama and the Democratic Party have trampled on the lives of brown, black and Muslim people much like Ahmed Mohamed, but that their belligerent policies rely on and fortify the anti-Muslim and racist climate that make stories like Ahmed’s arrest unsurprising. We know that if a US drone had sighted Ahmed making his clock in large parts of Pakistan instead of in Texas, he might well have fit the criteria for “signature strikes” that continue to target individuals the government does not know, but determines are behaving suspiciously. The American media might then have followed its pattern of tepidly discussing the merits of such a strike—if details about it had ever emerged. By contrast, we know that it would (rightly) be considered beyond the pale to even discuss the merits of dropping a bomb on Paris or London to kill someone suspected of intending to commit a crime. The same hierarchy of life that allows for this contrast rendered Ahmed presumptively guilty and subject to arrest in Texas.
Of course, there is a relationship between US foreign and domestic policy—and the types of people who are criminalized and targeted abroad are also criminalized and targeted inside the United States. Under the Obama administration, this is evident in FBI entrapment cases like the notorious Newburgh Four case, which involved the government using an agent promising huge sums of money and consistent psychological manipulation to lure four desperately poor, black, Muslim men in an impoverished neighborhood to go along with a fake plot for a fake crime that could never be realized without the government agent himself. It’s also clear in the Tarek Mehanna case, wherein overly broad material support statutes were used to prosecute a young Muslim American man for exercising his First Amendment rights to political speech. He is now serving 17 and a half years for a thought crime. It’s evident in the FBI surveillance and criminalization of Muslim communities, and the NSA surveillance program leaked by Edward Snowden. It’s also evident in the way mass incarceration works in the United States. If President Obama was serious about confronting structural racism in the United States, he could start by calling off his district attorneys from petty drug offenses that disproportionately focus on African-Americans despite the fact that drug use is the same across white and African-American populations.
While the Obama administration has hypocritically used the fact of Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest to score political points, the least the rest of us can do for Ahmed and the many others who risk experiencing the violence and inequity of the state is to recognize and reject government propaganda and the accompanying media spin that encourages sentimentality toward a power with so much blood on its hands. Obama has said that he takes a “stand with Ahmed” in Texas. And it’s understandable that Ahmed, who is a child, has reacted to the president’s support with enthusiasm. But we owe it to Ahmed and to others like him to remain unimpressed with the rhetoric of power, however charming, and to always align ourselves with those on the receiving end of its might.