What happened to Ahmed Mohamed could happen to any American Muslim.
On Monday, the 14-year-old was surrounded by five uniformed police officers, handcuffed and sent to a detention center after he brought a homemade clock to his high school in Irving, Tex. He had previously built radios, and even a Bluetooth speaker. But this time, his creativity was rewarded with a three-day suspension from school, a sentence decried across the nation: Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton encouraged Ahmed to keep innovating. Technology titans Google, Facebook and Twitter invited Ahmed to their headquarters. And President Obama invited Ahmed to the White House.
But the counter-extremism policies that Obama supports seem to encourage such severe responses to normal behavior in Muslim youth. While it’s easy to dispel Ahmed’s case and what happened in Irving as an aberration, fear and demonization of American Muslims are the norm.
At a White House summit in February, Obama championed the Department of Homeland Security’s “countering violent extremism” program, which calls on teachers, faith leaders and neighbors to suss out early indicators of extremism and report them to law enforcement. This federal initiative, which largely targets Muslim communities, was piloted in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston, and it is now proliferating across the country.
Speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School in April 2014, Obama’s homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, encouraged local communities to be sensitive to subtle behavior changes among their youth, which she called “warning signs” of radicalization:
What kinds of behaviors are we talking about? For the most part, they’re not related directly to plotting attacks. They’re more subtle. For instance, parents might see sudden personality changes in their children at home — becoming confrontational. Religious leaders might notice unexpected clashes over ideological differences. Teachers might hear a student expressing an interest in traveling to a conflict zone overseas. Or friends might notice a new interest in watching or sharing violent material.
This guidance encourages a hypersensitivity to the mundane behavior of young American Muslims and demonizes acts that are protected by the First Amendment. Innocuous activities like growing a beard, attending a fiery sermon, protesting U.S. foreign policy or fraternizing with Muslim political groups become “warning signs” that are reported to police under the guise of countering violent extremism.
It doesn’t help that today’s countering violent extremism programs almost exclusively target Muslim communities, a myopic focus that fans Islamophobia and stigmatizes American Muslims.
American Muslims are likewise routinely profiled by law enforcement, a practice clearly sanctioned by U.S. law. Under guidelines released by the Justice Department last December, certain federal agencies including the FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as well as state and local law enforcement, are legally authorized to profile and target American Muslims. The guidance also permits massive data gathering operations that map residents of communities based on their religion, race, or ethnicity. For example, it doesn’t prevent the widely criticized New York police mapping program, which used undercover officers to monitor Muslim student groups, Muslim-owned businesses, and establishments frequented by American Muslims. If Ahmed could be legally profiled by countless federal, state and local authorities based solely on his faith, why should we expect anything different from the teachers and police officers of Irving?
When the federal government discriminates, it fuels Islamophobia and creates a culture where American Muslims and their talents are feared and shamed, rather than welcomed and celebrated.
More than a dozen state legislatures have considered bills that criminalize sharia law, and just this year a bill was introduced in the Texas legislature prohibiting foreign law, an effort largely intended to shun sharia law. There’s also the vandalism of mosques and hate crimes against Muslims, which are becoming a quotidian part of American life.
As a result, Muslims, like Ahmed, live in a nation where equality and freedom, while accessible to some, is but a fleeting dream for them. A nation where innovation and imagination are often questioned, rather than encouraged. A nation where an enterprising boy needs a tweet from the president to fight off discrimination in his own home town. Thus, any American who condemns a school and police department for profiling a Muslim child should also question the federal policies that nurture this illogical fear and demonization.
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