Mahesh Sharma, India’s Culture minister, and a high school in Irving, Texas have more in common than they realise. On the face of it, the two incidents appear poles apart.
Ahmed Mohamed, a fourteen-year-old freshman in a high school in Texas, was handcuffed and detained by police after he took a homemade alarm clock to school to show his engineering teacher. But another teacher thought it looked like a bomb and called the police. The boy in his NASA T-shirt was interrogated and taken to a juvenile detention centre, triggering off a huge row about Islamophobia and stereotyping.
Meanwhile over in India, Mahesh Sharma, the culture minister who has recently found his tongue with a vengeance, tells India Today TV that it makes sense to rename Aurangzeb Road after APJ Abdul Kalam because Kalam “despite being a Muslim” was a great nationalist and humanist. Sharma was actually trying to deliver a compliment. The Texas police were reacting to young Mohamed as a threat but both responses draw from the same wellspring of prejudice.
Both see being Muslims ultimately from a base level of suspicion. The Texas authorities might insist anyone carrying a contraption with wires to school would be subject to the same treatment but they will never be able to demonstrate that Ahmed’s name and religion were not factors as well. “I like science, but I look like a threat because of my brown skin,” said Ahmed. He is not just a teenager building a clock, he is a Muslim teenager building a bomb-like device. As has been pointed out, if it was indeed a bona fide bomb scare, why was the school not evacuated? why was a bomb squad not called? And if it was a bomb hoax, why would the perpetrator call it a clock and defeat the point of a hoax?
Sharma might insist he was trying to prove that he, in fact, had no prejudice towards Muslims by making Kalam the "good" Muslim to Aurangzeb’s "bad" Muslim. That was belittling enough to Kalam’s memory but Sharma took it a step further because as Siddharth Vardarajan writes in The Wire, “In the Culture Minister’s perverted worldview, being Muslim is a handicap that the former President had to overcome in order to serve the country.” That's a fine message to send out to the country's Muslims.
The point of the story is the stereotypes we harbour. And that includes Taslima Nasreen who tweeted out, “If I could see Ahmed Mohamad’s home made clock, I would hv mistaken his thing for a bomb. Why ppl think Muslims can bring bombs? Cause they do.” But Muslims don’t bring bombs. Bad people, who come in all shapes, sizes and denominations, do. Just because there are terrorists who find their inspiration in their religion does not mean Ahmed Mohamed deserves to be interrogated for building a clock. America’s greatest school tragedies have not been caused by Muslims bringing bombs. Columbine. Sandy Hook. Springfield. Blacksburg. Those shooters had names like Eric Harris, Dylan Kiebold, Adam Lanza and Seung-Hui Cho.
Ahmed, however has been flooded with support from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to President Obama. “Cool clock, Ahmed,” tweeted President Obama. “Want to bring it to the White House?” It’s unlikely the Indian Prime Minister will say anything to Sharma. PM Narendra Modi, after all, is the face that launched a thousand #DespiteBeingAWoman hashtags after telling Sheikh Hasina, “I am happy that Bangladesh Prime Minister, despite being a woman, has declared zero tolerance for terrorism.”
Of course, it's also highly unlikely that Ahmed would have gotten anywhere near the White House with his contraption without triggering a security alert. But the point is the context. An unknown person with a jerry-rigged device with wires sticking out near the White House is clearly not the same as your fellow student bringing a clock to school and showing it to the engineering teacher.
Let’s be clear. No Qurans were desecrated here. No mosques vandalised. No one was beaten up for wearing a headscarf or a “beard like Osama”. But these forms of covert prejudice are more insidious and all the harder to root out because someone like Mahesh Sharma probably genuinely believes he was paying an ex-President a well-deserved compliment. Just as Ahmed’s high school, in a display of obdurate tone-deafness, has issued a statement without even a hint of apology, patting themselves on the back instead for “always” taking “the necessary steps to keep our school as safe as possible.”
Ahmed says he can “never look at the world in the same way”. But he is fourteen and hopefully the scars will fade and the support he has received is also unprecedented. As for Kalam, he is beyond caring about what anyone thinks of him. But what do we do about a Culture Minister who, despite being a Culture Minister, seems to show little appreciation for the breadth and diversity of India’s culture? Ahmed's clock was just a clock, but given his slew of explosive statements, Mahesh Sharma seems to be a ticking time bomb.