By Haroon Moghul for CNN
(CNN)The last time I wrote about events in Texas, it was so ridiculous it almost seemed funny. This time, though, I confess my reservoir of sympathy has run nearly dry. Fourteen-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, who attends Texas’ MacArthur High School, was arrested for bring a bomb to school.
Ahmed had actually told his teacher that he’d made the clock at home and brought it in to show what he was capable of. Well, one teacher showed us what this country is capable of, too. The police were called, arrested Ahmed on suspicion of building a bomb and the snap of a shocked young teenager in a NASA T-shirt has gone global.
Irving, Texas, is not far from Dallas, the same part of the country that was making a bid for the 2024 Olympics. Before you welcome the world, might I suggest you welcome your own citizens?
On Tuesday, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz wrote an op-ed for The Daily Beast asking us to pay attention to Islam’s “jihadism problem.” (A few decades off, but hey, better late than never, guys.) Today, however, America woke up to its Islamophobia problem. It’s a reality American Muslims have endured for years.
Because let’s be real. The clock didn’t look like a bomb. Ahmed just looked to some like someone who might want to make bombs. He’s that very menacing brownish color that racists and bigots associate with either everything south of Texas or some country they probably think is called Terroristan. As it happens, he’s of African, specifically Sudanese, descent. He’s got a doubly Muslim name.
Are you surprised he was arrested?
It’s been 14 years since September 11, and some Americans still cannot believe Muslims are human beings, or American Muslims are Americans or that no people shouldn’t be judged by the actions of people they are completely unrelated to.
And why? Let’s not beat around the bush. We have a whole class of professional bigots — I’ve called them “Islamsplainers” — whose very purpose in the world is to tell us what Islam really is. Except their explanations are based on no evidence, little argument and zero interaction with actual Muslims. They make broad, sweeping, ridiculous generalizations, which would be wholly and completely unacceptable if directed at any other people. Yet America takes them seriously.
It’s trickle-down Islamophobia, the opportunistic and grimy peddling of misinformation, making money and accumulating airtime by alarming Americans with exaggerated fears and wholly decontextualized theses.
Glenn Beck. Bill Maher. Robert Spencer. Pamela Geller. Sam Harris. Maajid Nawaz. Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Their views are vile, hateful, ignorant and, frankly, scary. Yet instead of being called out, they continue to receive mainstream endorsement. In fact, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a fellow at Harvard, while Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz’s terrible new book was also published by Harvard Press. Is this what passes for intelligent conversation in supposedly sophisticated circles?
Our professional Islamophobes say the same things, over and over again. They publish the same arguments, over and over again. Glenn Beck’s new book, cleverly titled “It IS About Islam,” is pretty much a rehash of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s latest book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.” (Probably none of them could invent a clock. Probably they’re just jealous.)
And people who don’t know any better eat it up. They think it’s the truth. They believe Muslim extremism is somehow different from other kinds of extremism. That radicalism is pervasive in Muslim communities. That American Muslims are terrorists. That our cemeteries are secret jihadist training grounds. (Really, we couldn’t think of a better cover story for jihad camp than “Muslim burial ground?”) That all Muslims are either jihadist apologists or jihadist denialists. That the dangerous nature of Muslims requires persistent surveillance.
As Daily Beast columnist and CNN contributor Dean Obeidallah has shown, Irving has proved especially receptive to these arguments, and its mayor has partaken in the demonization of Islam. People like her are part of the Islamophobia problem and why a 14-year-old kid got arrested for doing the most American of things: Tinkering. Inventing. Creating. For heaven’s sake, he’s got a NASA T-shirt on. He’s looking to the future, the place we used to think we owned. And do you know why we feel like we don’t? It’s not because of people like me, or kids like Ahmed. We believe in America. It’s the racists and bigots that don’t.
When I was 14, I loved “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I watched each episode religiously. I had and still have a man crush on Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. I wanted to marry Counselor Troi in a Sharia-compliant ceremony. I screamed out in agony at the third season finale. I believed I’d become a theoretical physicist. But I didn’t.
Fast forward to today, and instead of being able to focus on what I want, studying what I want, contributing what I feel most able to, I have to talk about my identity 24/7, because who else is going to respond to the racists, the bigots, the misinformants? Who’s going to read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s next book, or Sam Harris’ subsequent screed and tell you, once again, that despite all their advantages, they still know next to nothing about Islam, about Muslims, about America’s Muslims?
So yes, I and countless other Muslims will keep fighting the good fight, joining hands with people of conscience and conviction to oppose injustices, inequalities and racism of all kinds. Why? So that the real next generation — Ahmed’s generation — can follow their dreams. Not suffer for some people’s nightmares.
Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note: Haroon Moghul is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is an author, essayist and public speaker. Follow him @hsmoghul. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
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