Once upon a time (like, two months ago), Ahmed Mohamed was a media sensation on the left, a 14-year-old wunderkind with a Muslim name who brought a homemade clock to his school in Irving, Tex., and was wrongly suspected of being a terrorist-in-training. A viral image of the scrawny, bespectacled science nerd in a NASA T-shirt and set of handcuffs symbolized the worst of American Islamophobia — the idea that something as innocuous as a kid’s inventiveness could be viewed as a potential threat.
Riding a wave of support after his September arrest, Mohamed visited the White House, United Nations and Google. He picked up the “Muslim of the Year” award from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a full scholarship to the Doha Academy in Qatar, where he and his family have relocated.
Now, against the backdrop of Islamic State attacks on Paris, a national debate about what to do with Muslim refugees from Syria, and a State Department travel warning throughout the holiday season, the “clock kid” is back in the news. Only this time, the liberal press has no clue how to cover him.
The latest development in Mohamed’s story is a lawsuit. His family is seeking $15 million from the school district and the city of Irving, which opens him up to the charge, particularly from conservatives, that his public crusade against discrimination was and is motivated — at least in part — by money.
The boy who initially appeared to be the perfect embodiment of a popular liberal narrative — hard-working, good-hearted Muslims face bigotry that should make us all cringe — is suddenly, well, more complicated.
(Side note: This can happen to conservatives, too, of course. Remember, "Joe the Plumber," the unofficial GOP mascot of the 2008 presidential campaign? Real-life Joe, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, certainly represented many blue-collar workers who opposed then-Sen. Barack Obama's plan to "spread the wealth around." But he also turned out not to be a licensed plumber, as he had claimed, but rather a plumber's assistant; and he owed back taxes, facts liberals reveled in.)
Many news outlets that covered Mohamed's arrest extensively — particularly those that lean left — have reported on the lawsuit in relatively brief, straightforward terms or ignored it altogether.
Vox, which published more than a dozen stories about Mohamed in the three days after his arrest (I stopped counting), hadn’t noted the lawsuit, as of Wednesday morning. Ditto for Mother Jones, which had five Mohamed articles on the day when news of his arrest broke.
The Huffington Post went with a single news report on the lawsuit that recapped the circumstances of Mohamed’s arrest but didn’t mention the clock’s appearance, the questions about how it was built, or the meeting with Bashir. There was no biting commentary on Islamophobia.
Real people aren't perfect. Once their blemishes are revealed, their utility as pure political symbols is compromised. And when that happens, those who have been telling that symbolic story aren't so sure what to say anymore.