Ahmed Mohamed: After the Clock Stopped
Ahmed Mohamed’s family is leaving the country for Qatar. They say it is so their children will be accepted.
Their 14 year old son’s 15 minutes of fame were triggered by a home electronics project and a school overreaction which triggered a police overreaction which caused pictures to circulate of the 14-year-old in handcuffs. This triggered several international reactions.
You are probably familiar with the original coverage. NASA, Hilary Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg and many other public figures came out to show their support. Gawker ran an article titled 7 Kids Not Named Mohamed Who Brought Homemade Clocks to School and Didn’t Get Arrested. He was offered a trip to the White House, scholarships, and a lot more. It looked great: the institution wronged him, but thanks to the media exposing his story, the kid came out on top. Justice seemed to have been served and the gaze of most of the internet moved on.
The second wave of attention was less friendly. Pictures surfaced of his clock, the internet analyzed it, and decided that it was in fact a commercial clock with the outside hacked off and placed in a pencil case that looked like a fancy metal suitcase. People got upset, saying he had not “made” the clock since he really only took it apart and put it in the case. Since he had not personally wired the clock together (like all nerds tell themselves they had the patience and motivation to do when they were 14) it was decided that he had willfully lied about making it. I personally feel you’d be hard-pressed to find a 14-year-old child who did not exaggerate their personal accomplishments, and that many adults have the same failing, but it broke the illusion of this child being the perfect victim of circumstance, the child prodigy held down by the ignorance and racism of adults.
Once somebody is “a liar” people rightly question everything they did, but an obsession with this created a complete alternative narrative. The internet realized his father was an immigrant and had run for office in Sudan. They realized that Ahmed was getting help answering questions about the event from his older sister when on the phone with reporters. They found out that Ahmed, like many excited children, had shown his new source of pride to every teacher he could find and that despite being told not to show the clock anymore, he continued to play with it during class. People were upset that when teachers asked Ahmed what he had made, he was unable to explain it in a way that deescalated the situation. They were angry that a 14 year old kid, when asked fairly leading questions by adult reporters, generally simply answered “yes.” They were angry that Ahmed has come out ahead on this situation, and when he said to the media that he felt what he had suffered was all for the best, people became still more upset. Slowly, instead of believing that we had a technical genius on our hands, the narrative changed to him having a media mastermind for a father. This is a little weird since his older sister Eyman was the one who took the iconic picture, who made the twitter account, and who fed Ahmed answers during the interview, but regardless, the idea that this was all a grand orchestrated setup is popular on some corners of the internet.
But if this was the work of a media mastermind, it is one that makes a lot of rookie mistakes. Ahmed’s family accepted invitations for a worldwide tour of photographs and high fives, but included a stop where he was photographed with President al-Bashir of Sudan. When asked by a reporter what he would talk with President Obama about, Ahmed said he planned to ask for a White House pen as a souvenir. Even after the interview, when asked the same question, still not understanding that this is how you are invited to speak your platform in the media, Ahmed talked about how he told the president some facts about Mars. His father, when given the microphone at that press conference, discussed the importance of passing a constitutional amendment which declares people innocent until proven guilty. His sister casually mentioned that she had once been accused of making a bomb too, something she would clearly have been told not to say in a planned event. The concept that these people had the capacity to craft and astroturf the perfect narrative to ignite global tensions about Islamophobia and then lacked the capacity to follow it up, stay on message, or not undermine themselves in the most public ways is bizarre.
Do you know who does have the capacity to ignite global tensions about Islamophobia though? Everybody who rode Ahmed’s fame for a moment in the limelight to look like they were on the right side of history, no matter which side of the narrative they are on. It’s amazing how many articles I am sent exposing “the truth” exist to primarily sell books or advertising impressions. You want to look at the conspiracy in media over this story? Look there. Do you want to know why it sells? Because we don’t want to admit media and the sharing of perspectives is broken, so we like inventing characters which break these institutions temporarily for their own ends. It’s bizarre that an entire for-profit media industry can exist on the platform of explaining that for-profit media can be corrupted, but somehow, we are all comfortable with that.
The story served as a perfect vehicle for everything discussing institutional Islamophobia to a discussion in defense of the practice of racial profiling. Because it could be used for almost anything and it caused controversy it ran and ran and ran.
Some of the pundits trying to engage even seemed to acknowledge the absurdity of Ahmed’s situation and what was being offered to him.
I particularly enjoy this one, where a social media team decided to use the trending hashtag rather than notifying Ahmed’s account (which has the same number of letters as the hashtag), though it is worth noting that none of the tweets in this article actually notify his official account. Hopefully this was an honest mistake and all of these people and social media teams simply do not understand the basic functionality of Twitter.
The Mohammad family, unable to get back out of the limelight, continued to make media mistakes. They discussed the amazing academic and career opportunities Ahmed had now and the internet got angry. They said Ahmed was scarred by the incident and the internet sneered.
Other information is speculative but reported as news. The local police asked for an exception from having to turn over information about the arrest, saying they feared a lawsuit, and so a rumor started that the family was suing the police department to profit off the situation. While many outlets discuss “the lawsuit” the only place which seems to do any more than imply it already exists is this Brietbart article, which was the place to originally report the police department’s request for an exemption.
Finally, the family announced they are moving to Qatar to escape the conspiracy theories and to find a place where their children will be accepted for who they are.
So, at the end, the kid’s life will be significantly defined by a media shitshow, a lot of people who got to promote their personal agendas for profit, the internet got to pat itself on the back, a school district and a police force look terrible, and we lost the entire family of that “special talent” everybody was supposedly working so hard to keep here.
At the end of the day, the question at the core of this has been why Ahmed made that clock and why it was placed in a case that made it look like a Hollywood bomb and brought it to school. The simplest answer is probably that a 14 year old thinks it looks cool which, honestly, it does. I would absolutely buy a clock that looked like that, especially if you could snooze it by shutting the lid.
We spend a lot of time talking about how young and innocent Ahmed is at 14, but we don’t seem to give him a lot of slack for basic things kids his age commonly struggle with, such as understanding the line of what is socially appropriate, making good judgements about risk, being respectful of authority figures who don’t like things he takes pride in, following instructions from said authority figures or generally being cooperative with them, deescalating hostile situations, bringing things to school which are not permitted, putting away electronics after being asked to, the list goes on.
We have no evidence proving Ahmed did all of this to provoke a reaction, but, let’s imagine for a moment that an angry teenager really did act out to because he felt like the deck was stacked against him. Let’s imagine that he did do something stupid because he felt hunted and hated for his name and family. Let’s imagine that he intentionally started trouble because he felt like these forces dominated and shaped his life and that he would never escape them. I remember the bitter anger of being a teenager and some of the stupid things I did because of it. I remember feeling like the world hated me. I remember being angry about it, I remember acting out about it, and I was a fairly privileged little girl. If Ahmed, under far more difficult circumstances than I ever faced, made a bad decision at 14 I can not blame him, I really can’t.
Not when all of this would have simply proven him right.