*Joseph McQuade  is doing a PhD in History with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Picture credit: BBC.
Last Monday, a boy in Irving, Texas, brought a clock to school. If this seems innocuous, it should. The incident became international news, however, when the 14 year old was accused of building a bomb and arrested by local police. The authorities have since unconvincingly sought to assure the public that the arrest had no connection to the fact that the boy was a young Muslim named Ahmed Mohamed [pictured]. Ahmed was subsequently released from custody and has received an outpouring of support on social media from a wide range of people including President Barack Obama, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and astronaut Chris Hadfield. The hashtag #IStandWithAhmed has gone viral, reflecting a popular desire to correct the injustice done to this teenage boy.
This incident reflects a broader process through which many Muslims living in North America and Europe are treated as suspects first and citizens second. The conflation of the categories of 'Muslim' and 'terrorist' has nothing to do with the realities of political violence and everything to do with the 'othering' of violence as coming from an external place, race or culture. This process defines mass killings carried out by white assailants as isolated incidents, while linking similar actions carried out by Muslim suspects to a broader narrative of a supposed civilisational clash between 'Western' values and Islamic terrorism. In the years since September 11th, 2001, white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists have carried out 19 mass killings in the United States with a total of 48 fatalities, while extremists identifying with jihadist ideologies have carried out seven attacks, killing 26 people.
But while both sources of political violence represent threats to public safety that must be taken seriously, an attack carried out by an extremist identified as a Muslim is almost guaranteed to be labelled as terrorism, whereas the media has demonstrated a profound reluctance in attaching this label to non-Muslim extremists. When Dylan Roof murdered nine African Americans in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, there was controversy over whether the mass murder, fuelled by an explicit white supremacist ideology, should be referred to as a terrorist attack. Similarly, reports on the shooting of three young American Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, debated whether or not the motivation for the attack had been a personal dispute over a parking space. In 2012, the murder of six Sikhs in their place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, by avowed white supremacist Wade Michael Page was reported as a 'massacre' rather than an act of domestic terrorism.
This context is important for understanding how an innocent display of intelligence by an inventive young boy could be mistaken for an attempted act of terrorism. But it also raises questions about the sincerity of the social media response to his wrongful arrest. It is important that we stand with Ahmed. But, on a day to day basis, do we? According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports program, hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims in the United States are five times as common as they were before 9/11, with 500 Islamophobic hate crimes carried out in 2001 and an annual average of 100 to 150 in each year since then, compared to an average of 20 to 30 per year through the 1990s. And this issue is by no means limited to the United States. Islamophobia is on the rise across Europe, with hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims in London rising by 70% in the last year alone. An astonishing 816 hate crimes have been reported in the last 12-month period, compared to 478 in the previous year, far exceeding American statistics. Around 60% of these crimes have targeted Muslim women.
These numbers say nothing about the everyday harassment and indignity experienced by Muslims on a regular basis in Western countries that insist on viewing them with perpetual suspicion. These acts of discrimination are no less damaging and no less unconscionable when they are directed at Muslims whose stories do not attract international media attention and tweets from the president. Ahmed's story has shed some light onto a culture of Islamophobia that goes far beyond a boy and his clock. Whether or not we have the courage to take the story further remains to be seen.