Melissa Smyth

“The next step is to reject the tyranny’s discourse.” John Berger

When news broke of a high school freshman in Irving, Texas—a Sudanese-American Muslim student named Ahmed Mohamed—arrested for presenting his teacher with his homemade clock, allegedly thought to be a “hoax bomb,” Barack Obama was quick to join the chorus of support for the young inventor.

“Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.”

The effect was twofold: the endorsement made it even easier to jump on the #IStandWithAhmed clicktivism campaign, and the president won major PR points for his skillfully poised reaction.

The affair has stirred up crucial discussion of the school-to-prison pipeline, what Henry Giroux describes as “the transformation of schools into punishing factories and… a war on youth.” The criminalization of Ahmed’s ingenuity is likewise indicative of the rampant islamophobia at every level of our society, brought by the jingoism of US imperialist warfare in the Middle East and the accompanying national security craze that automates the association between Islam and fanaticism, and encourages a “see something say something” paranoid vigilante culture. 

Despite the incident's seeming absurdity, there's a reason why school authorities didn't dismiss the teacher's overreaction as absurd, why cops saw it fit to lead a meek and intimidated young man away in cuffs, and why the Irving School District admits no wrongdoing in its handling of the situation. Officially, a student's Muslim identity is enough to warrant perpetual suspicion and preemptive discipline. As Glenn Greenwald has argued, it's discrimination by design. 

The media hype has spiked and plateaued, but @POTUS’s tweet hasn’t settled quite right. Parsing through the politics of White House social media seems like a fruitless and unending task, but this particular tweet strikes an especially troubling chord regarding the president’s social media presence.

It seems fair to expect that the president should be neither surprised nor outraged, responsible as he is for the state of affairs that put Ahmed in cuffs. But I don’t deny the claim that Obama is sincere in his outreach, which was a reasonable response to a national embarrassment. Obama is human, a father to a 14-year-old, and often the subject of hateful discrimination himself. And Ahmed Mohamed, a young inventor who expresses an earnest passion for discovery, who is confident yet measured in his speech, is so clearly deserving of praise, not punishment. 

In other words, he makes an ideal token. 

It is the president’s opportunism in commending Ahmed that is so grating, even insulting. Just as its public embrace of Malala Yousafzai provided Obama an invaluable photo op with the young Pakistani champion of women’s education, while sidestepping her criticism of its drone program, the White House scores diversity points and portrays its figurehead as compassionate, socially engaged, and, worst of all, genuinely concerned with upholding justice. 

The White House’s support for Ahmed is expedient. It is also meaningless, because it is offered only in the face of scandal. Standing with Ahmed in more than just words means standing with him before, during, and after his public arrest and overwhelming vindication. This incident likely would never have happened if not for the White House systematically doing exactly the opposite. 

Standing with Ahmed means actively and persistently fighting against islamophobia and racism in all its manifestations and at all of its roots. And it means doing so even when “Ahmed” isn’t a brilliant, agreeable, and adorable young man. 

I cheer for Ahmed for the accolades he has received, and will admit that the cacophony of social media has done real good in helping him to overcome his unjust humiliation. But I also think of those who will never be invited to the White House, no matter how much injustice they suffer under its heel. 

I think of the middle school students, in another Texas school district, whom I met as an interpreter in a weekly refugee support group. These students, struggling to adapt to a new school setting just months or weeks after displacement from their home countries, often reported bullying and intimidation from some peers “for being Arabic.” In one of our sessions, one of the adults charged with supporting their emotional and social development crudely called out their Muslim identity to explain their disobedient behavior, and behind their backs, referred to them as “cultural misogynists.” 

When some of the boys eventually fought back against their bullies, school counselors commandeered the group to coerce a “discussion” of the issue. Despite their insistence that another student started the fight, the boys faced additional penalty for neglecting to inform authorities immediately. Counselors used the threat of police involvement to compel them to comply with instruction. They reminded the students that the incident was recorded on surveillance video, and declared that in this country, fighting will always be punished, no matter the provocation. What was intended to help new students develop community roots quickly became, by the force of the school, a means of indoctrination to surveillance, discipline, and degradation. 

I worry for these students, and suspect that for their tougher demeanors, gelled hair, meager interest in academics, and professed love for little other than soccer, they’ll never be hashtagged or invited to the White House if they are someday treated as brusquely as Ahmed was. Nobody will care that one is a role model of an older brother, another spoke four languages before learning English, and another misses visiting his grandmother. Only a very small network can claim to stand for these boys.

The school system, as part of a prison pipeline, is designed to negate the humanity of those students deemed “other” in order to justify their eventual and perpetual punishment, much like the treatment of “detainees” in US military prisons around the world. This is what was meant to happen in Ahmed’s case, and was foiled by exceptionalism. 

Obama’s PR team attempted to neutralize the leaked humanity of the oppressed by meeting it with the same. His Twitter persona is warm, relatable, and savvy. Like any corporation, the White House has a professional social media team. This is insidious because it capitalizes upon an instinct to recognize and meet the humanity presented by others, and exploits the sentimental weakness that needs to see good values operating in a democracy striving for progress, in order to deepen its subjugation of the people. It is essential spectacle: “a visible negation of life… a negation of life that has invented a visual form for itself.” ¹

His Twitter account makes Obama appear to be a good guy, with good intentions, an earnest man doing his best in a difficult position, letting slide the contradictions in the wars he wages from home. But the power of the state and the political position of the president necessarily preclude the possibility of his acting as a human agent. 

Whether or not Obama felt genuine sympathy for Ahmed is irrelevant. It is not his person, which has been made an inaccessible entity through his presidency, at fault, but his power, which is deadly and inherently incapable of engaging with the people on a horizontal level. And as much as our peace of mind could be preserved by writing off the White House’s shallow social media presence, it must be recognized as the powerful weapon of propaganda it is. While the office of the presidency crafts an accessible form for itself, it creates an illusory divide between its human components and the murderous policies that sustain its supremacy, and it fosters apologism.

¹ Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 14. 

Melissa Smyth recently completed an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, focusing on visual culture and photographic representation of violence. Her photography work can be seen here. Twitter @perrykeetsmyth