Who Stands with Ahmed and Why?

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In this past Monday’s post, Joseph Laycock discusses the Ahmed Mohamed affair–the 14-year old Texas boy arrested for bringing a clock to school, mistaken for a bomb, despite a clear lack of evidence–and asks whether it is “necessary to believe in a threat to take action against it?”

Laycock suggests that part of what was going on here can be explained by the idea of moral panic, which he describes, following Stanley Cohen, as “a social situation in which a particular group or social phenomenon comes to be seen as a threat to societal values and interests.”

Central to Laycock’s thesis is the idea that when a community has been conditioned to believe that it is under threat from some external force (e.g., some amorphous notion of “Islam”) it is more likely to blur the lines between imagination and reality, where, in this case, the removal of a symbol of a threat (a clock standing in for a bomb) functioned to alleviate the fears of some (e.g., those on the political right).

I’d like to pick up on Laycock’s discussion on the social effects of this symbolic discourse by turning to some popular responses in support of Ahmed, as with the following tweet from president Obama:

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Ahmed also received invitations from Facebook, Google, NASA, wired.com, and Twitter, where the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed was trending at # 1 all day last week. In all of these high profile invitations, the idea of Ahmed’s creativity and love for science was front and center, as with the following examples.

From Google:

Google-Ahmed

From Twitter:

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From astronaut Chris Hadfield:

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Despite a clear recognition by many of his supporters that this affair was caught up in larger issues of race and Islamphobia, Ahmed’s Muslim identity was curiously absent in this counter-narrative. As a member of the Dallas hackers’ community put it:

This kid took the initiative to make something and brought it to school. The leadership of the school was too ignorant to realize what the child had done—that shows how bad the education system is when it comes to STEM,” he added. “I’m ashamed the public school system would react like this and frankly I’m astounded this happened to him.

Contrary to the notion of moral panic, it would appear that the negative associations that initially linked Ahmed’s Muslim identity with violence and terrorism were replaced here with a positive valence of an American exceptionalism that was being squandered.

While this has likely had some positive effects by linking a different valence to the sign-symbols “Islam” and “Muslim” in the Euro-Western imagination, one thing to consider here is how the attempt to align Ahmed with scientific progress may also play into the “good/bad Muslim” paradigm, which Evelyn Alsultany describes in her book Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11 (2012) as follows:

… the public debate since the terrorist attacks has involved a discourse about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims in which all Muslims are assumed to be bad until they perform and prove their allegiance to the U.S. nation. What makes a Muslim ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in this paradigm is not his or her relationship to Islam but rather to the United States. Through rare in U.S. history, after 9/11 this mode of representing ‘the enemy’ became standard. (14-15)

Whatever positive valances may arise from this incident in relation to Muslim identities, it seems clear that Ahmed’s use-value in this particular affective economy, to borrow a concept from Sara Ahmed, is linked to how he resembles so-called “Western” values and has nothing to do with his “Muslimness,” which remains properly out of sight in the private sphere. As much as Ahmed’s creativity and scientific acumen may help to change some perceptions of and discussion about Muslims in America, the outpouring of support that he received tells us little about popular liberal perceptions of Islam and more about what the West thinks of itself.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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