How Anti-Radicalisation can Backfire
by Hana Khan
Recently, you may have heard of a boy called Ahmed Mohamed in the news. A 14-year-old electronics enthusiast, Ahmed enjoys inventing things, and one Monday morning in September he brought into school a digital clock he had built inside a pencil case.
He said he had wanted to ‘impress his teachers’, but this backfired slightly when his English teacher thought the clock resembled a bomb and confiscated it. Ahmed was reported to the principal who, without notifying his parents, called the police to interrogate him.
After being questioned for an hour and a half, the teenager was taken into custody, handcuffed, and transported to a juvenile detention facility, where he was fingerprinted and his photograph taken. The case was not pursued any further, but he was still suspended from his school for three days. The clock was not returned to him.
News of the incident went viral: in twenty four hours almost a million people tweeted messages of support for him, using the hashtag ‘I stand with Ahmed’. He received support from all over the world, from all sorts of people, including Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerburg, MIT, Google and Twitter.
Ahmed even took President Obama up on his offer, and on 19th October he attended the White House Astronomy Night and met with the President, even being placed on a call with the crew of the International Space Station.
His family was then invited to the headquarters of the United Nations in New York, where the officials were very keen to meet him, and all showed him support. After meeting him, The President of the Brooklyn Borough tweeted ‘I’ll buy one of his clocks’, and Mayor Bill de Blasio even gave Ahmed his own day, which is on 28th September. There’s even a Halloween costume that’s been made of him!
The principal of MacArthur High School maintains that she did the right thing in reporting a suspicious object, and the mayor of the town has also defended both the school and the police, saying they acted correctly under the circumstances.
Although the school said they would be happy to welcome Ahmed back, he and his siblings have all left and moved to Qatar, where he has been offered a full scholarship taking him through high school and university.
Many people have commented that Ahmed has been a victim of racial profiling and Islamophobia, and that the reason the school and police reacted so violently was due to Ahmed being a Sudanese Muslim. His mother said, ‘I think this wouldn’t even be a question if his name wasn’t Ahmed Mohamed’.
Under the threat of ISIS, knee-jerk reactions to incidents like this one are becoming increasingly common from people in responsibility, and not just in America. Here in the UK, teachers are required to have special training to recognise students that might be at risk from radicalisation. This is part of the government’s Prevent strategy, which aims to prevent British people from being drawn into terrorism. Since 2012, over 4000 people have been reported through the scheme to the government’s anti-radicalisation programme, Channel, half of them under-18s, and this number is set to rise dramatically as this training of teachers becomes a legal requirement.
Another 14-year-old was taken out of his lessons and questioned about affiliations with ISIS after mentioning ‘ecoterrorists’ in his French lesson in a discussion about people who use violence to protect the environment. His mother said her son came home from school ‘visibly distressed’ and the family believes that this boy, like Ahmed, was picked on for being a Muslim and that this would not have happened to a white student.
The youngest person to be referred to Channel was aged just three years old. The nursery child is from a family whose older members had supposedly been ‘displaying alarming behaviour’ but it is incidents like these that have led people to question the benefits of the prevent scheme.
Although it began in 2007, very little has been published to evidence the scheme’s success. Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre of the Study of Radicalisation says: ‘If [the government] highlighted successful cases too, [then Prevent] would be more plausible in the eyes of the community concerned.’
As it stands, far from protecting vulnerable children, many people view the scheme as discriminatory towards Muslims, while others compare it to Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984. These people worry that people will no longer be willing, or even able, to express themselves and their opinions for fear of being accused of terrorist sympathies, and that the scheme as a result will compromise freedom of speech.
Some people argue that the scheme is actually counterproductive – if people have a sense of injustice but don’t feel free to express themselves in a peaceful way their anger will build inside them and in fact make them more open to terrorist recruitment.
Written by Hana Khan and Sana Zuberi in 2015