The arrest of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old whiz kid who brought a home-made clock to school in Irving, Texas, seems to have struck a nerve in the United States in a way that any number of other stories regarding anti-Muslim bigotry over the years have not.
While there have been countless examples of Islamophobia run amok since 9/11 – including attacks on places of worship, harassment at airports, hostile protests against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” and even a recent “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest,” which encouraged Americans to draw deliberately offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad – few events have garnered as much sympathy for the Muslim targets of religious and racial intolerance as the shabby treatment endured by Ahmed Mohamed last week.
A photo of the high school freshman being marched out of school in handcuffs after administrators accused him of possessing a “hoax bomb” quickly went viral. Yet, even following his release from custody, the police apparently refused to accept that he only built the device as a clock and did not intend it to resemble a bomb, saying, “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation.”
While being interrogated, Mohamed was not allowed to contact his family and was repeatedly asked about his suspicious-sounding last name, according to reporting by the Washington Post. During the questioning, he also claims he was threatened with expulsion, and although he was not criminally charged, he was ultimately suspended from school for three days.
The support he has received has been overwhelming, including invites from Facebook, Google, MIT and the White House. The hashtag #IStandWithAhmed quickly shot to number one as the top trending topic on Twitter, garnering more than 370,000 tweets within five hours last Wednesday, and the Twitter account @IStandWithAhmed ballooned to thousands of followers within a few hours of being set up.
Even the music streaming site Spotify threw its support behind the wrongfully arrested teen with a special playlist titled “For Ahmed.” Featuring tracks intended to send Mohamed “good vibes & upbeat jams” with songs such as “Time Is On Your Side,” “Keep Your Head Up” and “You’re the Best,” the playlist was meant, it seems, to both inspire the young inventor and to counter the culture of fear that led to his arrest in the first place.
But notwithstanding this touching outpouring of sympathy and solidarity, America’s uglier side of intolerance and small-mindedness has returned with a vengeance. In case anyone may have hoped that this unfortunate incident would provide a teaching moment leading to greater tolerance and understanding, prominent right-wing politicians jumped in to remind everyone that nastiness and prejudice still rule the day.
Sarah Palin for example chastised Obama for inviting Mohamed to the White House, calling his clock a “dangerous wired-up bomb-looking contraption.”
“Yep, believing that’s a clock in a school pencil box is like believing Barack Obama is ruling over the most transparent administration in history,” Palin wrote on Facebook. “Right. That’s a clock, and I’m the Queen of England.”
Beth Van Duyne, the mayor of Irving, defended the actions of school administrators and police as understandable and justifiable. “We have all seen terrible and violent acts committed in schools, the workplace, and in public venues,” Van Duyne wrote on her Facebook page. “Perhaps some of those could have been prevented and lives could have been spared if people were more vigilant.”
Some have pointed out that Van Duyne’s response is unsurprising considering that she has “been on an anti-Muslim crusade all year,” having led an earlier attempt to nip “sharia law” in the bud when an “Islamic Tribunal” was set up in nearby Dallas to arbitrate civil disputes between Muslims in the community.
Van Duyne took a firm stand against the Dallas arbitration panel, vowing to keep a close eye on it and fight any perceived encroachment into state law.
“While I am working to better understand how this ‘court’ will function and whom will be subject to its decisions, please know that if it is determined that there are violations of basic rights occurring, I will not stand idle and will fight with every fiber of my being against this action,” she wrote.
Her stance earned her a reputation as an “anti-sharia crusader,” but although the words “crusade” and “crusader” are sometimes casually thrown around to describe the demagoguery of politicians like Van Duyne, it is not clear whether the historical significance of these terms are fully understood, nor how fitting they actually are to describe the climate of anti-Islamic hysteria in the United States today.
Cause or Crusade?
George W. Bush was once criticized for using the word “crusade” to describe the campaign against terrorism that was being launched in the wake of 9/11. As the president said on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, “This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.”
Wall Street Journal reporters Peter Waldman and Hugh Pope noted at the time that the “crusade” reference “could hardly have been a more indelicate gaffe.”
“Crusade?” they asked. “In strict usage, the word describes the Christian military expeditions a millennium ago to capture the Holy Land from Muslims. But in much of the Islamic world, where history and religion suffuse daily life in ways unfathomable to most Americans, it is shorthand for something else: a cultural and economic Western invasion that, Muslims fear, could subjugate them and desecrate Islam.”
While Bush’s spokesperson later tried to clarify his remark, saying that it was only meant in “the traditional English sense of the word, a broad cause,” the damage had largely already been done, and America’s enemies seized on the statement as proof of the West’s anti-Muslim bias.
As al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said in a televised message on Nov. 3, 2001, “After the U.S. politicians spoke and after the U.S. newspapers and television channels became full of clear crusading hatred in this campaign that aims at mobilizing the West against Islam and Muslims, Bush left no room for doubts or the opinions of journalists, but he openly and clearly said that this war is a crusader war. He said this before the whole world to emphasize this fact.”
Bin Laden described what he perceived as historical continuity between the medieval Crusades and the modern-day “war on terror.”
“These battles cannot be viewed in any case whatsoever as isolated battles, but rather, as part of a chain of the long, fierce, and ugly crusader war,” he said.
However Bush meant the “crusade” reference, there are clearly recognizable parallels between the historical Crusades and the current “war on terror,” both of which can be seen as an amalgamation of religion, politics, opportunism and conquest. What the historical Crusades dramatically demonstrated most clearly is the power of exploiting religion in order to advance political goals – not unlike the demagoguery on display in contemporary American political discourse.
In calling for the liberation of Christians living under Muslim rule in Jerusalem, Pope Urban II appealed to a sense of victimhood and desire for revenge prevalent among medieval European Christians. In his call for the First Crusade, he said in 1095: “We have heard … how, with great hurt and dire sufferings our Christian brothers, members in Christ, are scourged, oppressed, and injured in Jerusalem, in Antioch, and the other cities of the East. … Gird yourselves, every one of you, I say, and be valiant sons; for it is better for you to die in battle than to behold, the sorrows of your race and of your holy places.”
While he appealed to religious sensibilities, it is clear that political considerations played a key role in Pope Urban II’s decision to launch the Crusades, calculating that there was no better way to gather the various elements of the Christian West under his cloak.
To entice people to take up arms, the pope promised the suspension of any legal proceedings being taken against them – the modern day equivalent of prosecutorial immunity – and absolution for any sins they may have committed, assuring them a place in heaven.
Claiming their ordained status as victims of Muslim oppression, the Christian Crusaders then proceeded to “liberate” Jerusalem on July 15, 1099, killing an estimated 40,000 men, women and children in the process. The massacre was described by eyewitness Raymond of Aguiles:
“Wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men … cut off the heads of their enemies; … others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city. It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses. … [I]n the temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins. Indeed it was a just and splendid judgement of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers since it had suffered so long from their blasphemies.”
And so began an era of sustained and extraordinary violence that lasted two centuries. This violence ultimately included attacks against not only Muslims and pagans but also other Christians.
The Fourth Crusade in 1204 for example sacked Constantinople, the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church. While some Crusaders dissented against the idea of attacking an innocent Christian city and deserted the Crusade before the attack, others stayed on and eagerly joined the assault.
Despite having taken oaths to conquer the city in a manner appropriate to the occupation of a Christian city, with no women were to be molested and no churches to suffer depredations, the Crusaders attacked the city mercilessly.
According to historian Jean Richard, the Crusaders spared “neither churches … nor the monuments and works of art inherited from Antiquity; the population, without there being a true massacre, suffered badly.” Karen Armstrong goes into more gruesome detail, calling the sack of Constantinople “one of the great crimes of history.”
As she described the rampage: “For three days the Venetians and Crusaders rushed through the streets, raping, killing and pillaging with a horrible eagerness. Women and children lay dying in the streets and nuns were raped in their convents.”
Pope Innocent III was so distressed by the sack of Constantinople that he excommunicated the entire Crusade.
Scholars have long debated the efficacy of the Crusades and their larger meaning, and while there may be no clear historical consensus yet, most experts tend to agree that this was generally a dark chapter in history, with Christian teachings exploited and misused as an excuse for murder and pillage.
What is striking however is that there now seems to be a concerted effort underway to revive the Crusades and polish their status in history, with recent books such as Steve Weidenkopf’s The Glory of the Crusades claiming to “debunk the numerous myths about the Crusades that our secular culture uses as clubs to attack the Church.”
Similarly, the “Real Crusades History” series on YouTube paints a picture of the Crusades as a necessary and just campaign against alleged Islamic expansionism. Islam is portrayed as bent on devouring Christian Europe despite the fact that there is no historical evidence to support this theory, and the Crusades are further celebrated in the videos as a crucial event that united European Christendom.
Mainstream conservative pundits have also taken up this cause, with Jonah Goldberg, writing recently in the National Review, emphasizing that “The Crusades – despite their terrible organized cruelties – were a defensive war” (thus distinguishing them from the barbarities of offensive jihad).
Those who fail to see the Crusades as glorious, necessary and just are the ones guilty of historical revisionism, according to the contemporary conservative view.
Running for the Republican nomination for president four years ago, Rick Santorum said, “The idea that the Crusades and the fight of Christendom against Islam is somehow an aggression on our part is absolutely anti-historical.” He attributed this “anti-historical” perception to propaganda perpetrated by “the American left who hates Christendom.”
The revival of the Crusades has even extended into the marketing of firearms, with one Florida-based gun manufacturer now offering a “Crusader Rifle,” emblazoned with biblical verses and a symbol of the Knights Templar, a religious sect tracing its roots to the First Crusade. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) of Florida objected to the gun, asking whether it may inspire right-wing extremists to commit violence against Muslims.
“Sadly, this manufacturer’s fancy new gun won’t do anything to stop the real threat in America: the escalating problem of gun violence,” said Hasan Shibly, executive director of CAIR-Florida. “This is just another shameful marketing ploy intended to profit from the promotion of hatred, division, and violence.”
While it might be easy to dismiss the rantings of a few right-wing politicians and pundits, or as shameless profiteering the marketing tactics of an obscure Florida gun maker, the fact is, these views are infusing the U.S. political debate to a degree once unimaginable. Far from the fringes where they belong, the Christian-Crusader mentality has seeped into the echelons of both policy-making and military strategy.
Total War on Islam
In May 2012, journalists Noah Shachtman and Spencer Ackerman revealed in Wired magazine that for years, the U.S. military had been teaching its future leaders that a “total war” against the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims would be necessary to protect America from Islamic extremism.
The lessons taught in the class included using the lessons of “Hiroshima” to wipe out entire cities at once, targeting the “civilian population wherever necessary.”
“For the better part of the last decade,” Shachtman and Ackerman reported, “a small cabal of self-anointed counterterrorism experts has been working its way through the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement communities, trying to convince whoever it could that America’s real terrorist enemy wasn’t al-Qaida — but the Islamic faith itself.”
“We have now come to understand that there is no such thing as ‘moderate Islam,’” Army Lt. Col. Matthew A. Dooley noted in a July 2011 presentation to young cadets. “It is therefore time for the United States to make our true intentions clear. This barbaric ideology will no longer be tolerated. Islam must change or we will facilitate its self-destruction.”
The class, which has since been discontinued by the Defense Department, included course material that explicitly stated that international law – including the Geneva Conventions – no longer applies to the United States in its conduct of the “war on terror.”
More recently, Republican presidential hopefuls have insinuated that Muslims are constitutionally unqualified to hold the highest office in the land, and have even hinted at the possibility of removing Muslims entirely from the country.
Ben Carson, who’s currently running for the Republican nomination, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Islam is antithetical to U.S. constitutional principles, and that a Muslim should never be elected president in the United States.
“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that,” Carson said.
Other presidential candidates criticized Carson for his statement, including Lindsey Graham, who said that Carson should apologize to American Muslims. Ted Cruz reminded Carson that “the Constitution specifies there shall be no religious test for public office.”
Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders said his sentiments have no place in the 21st century.
“You know, this is the year 2015,” Sanders told reporters. “You judge candidates for president not on their religion, not on the color of their skin, but on their ideas on what they stand for. … I was very disappointed in Dr. Carson’s statement.”
Curiously silent on Carson’s controversial remarks was Donald Trump, the billionaire construction tycoon and reality TV personality who has propelled to the front of the race for the Republican nomination with his own divisive statements on immigration, race and religion.
For his part, the Republican frontrunner last week seemed to suggest that deportations of Muslims could be a possibility if he lands himself in the White House.
At a town hall in New Hampshire on Thursday, Trump nodded in agreement when a supporter declared, “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims,” warning darkly of supposed “training camps” in America. “When can we get rid of ’em?” the man asked.
Throughout the meandering question, Trump encouraged the man, saying “we need this question” and “mm-hmm.” He then responded, “We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.” The implication was that a future Trump Administration would be “looking at” how to “get rid of ’em,” i.e. Muslims.
Clarifying Trump’s response, his campaign issued a statement the next day blaming the media for twisting the issue. “The media wants to make this issue about Obama,” said Trump’s campaign. “The bigger issue is that Obama is waging war against Christians in this country. Their religious liberty is at stake.”
Thus, much like Pope Urban II a millennium ago, Trump portrayed the issue in simple terms that victimized Christians can easily understand: their faith is under attack by heretics who threaten their very religious liberty.
Meanwhile, the actual victims of persecution, innocent clock-makers like Ahmed Mohamed, continue to suffer the very real consequences of religious intolerance.