On Oct. 19, a 14-year-old Irving student will join NASA astronauts and elite scientists for Astronomy Night at the White House, thanks to a personal invitation from President Barack Obama.
For a young man fascinated with engineering, this should be a dream come true. But in the case of Ahmed Mohamed, it is a nation’s apology for a public debacle.
Mohamed, who until this week was a freshman at MacArthur High School, became a household name after his arrest at the school last week, on suspicion of making a bomb. In interviews with arresting officers, Mohamed insisted the device was nothing more than a digital clock, assembled in a silver briefcase.
Mohamed’s story has since ignited a national debate about the fear of terrorism and growing Islamophobia in America.
With a viral hashtag, “#IstandwithAhmed,” gifts from Microsoft, and invitations from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg and the president himself, the young Irving student has seen an outpouring of support.
That a national story like this would land in the University of Dallas’ backyard might seem strange. But those familiar with the city of Irving will not be surprised.
Last spring, Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne began to gain national popularity among tea party groups for speaking out forcefully about her concerns regarding radical Islam and her suggestions that the religion was gaining a foothold in North Texas.
Irving is home to one of the region’s largest mosques, the Islamic Center of Irving on Esters Road, and the city’s Muslim population has grown dramatically in the last decade.
Van Duyne’s comments centered around a bill introduced this year by State Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano). The “American Laws for American Courts,” would have banned Texas courts from using foreign law in their ruling — a practice that was already illegal, according to reports in the Dallas Morning News.
In March, the Irving City Council narrowly passed a resolution in a 5-4 vote supporting the bill.
The bill was created partially in response to concerns that Sharia courts were being established within Muslim communities throughout Texas, including in Irving. Sharia law represents a strict fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and is widely associated with radical Jihadi movements.
Van Duyne expressed concern that such courts would attempt to override American law, which Islamic officials and many legal scholars argued was not a danger.
In February, the mayor responded to the establishment of a Sharia court at the Irving mosque with a Facebook post reiterating her concern.
Van Duyne acknowledged that the application of foreign law in Texas courts was already illegal but further explained her hopes for the proposed bill.
“Now that this issue has emerged in our community, I am working … to clarify and strengthen existing prohibitions on the application of foreign law in violation of constitutional … rights,” Van Duyne said. “American citizens need to remember that their rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and I believe no one should subjugate themselves to anything less.”
A statement on the Islamic Center of Irving’s website denies the existence of a Sharia court, but explains that there is an Islamic Tribunal in Dallas which addresses “a genuine need within our faith community for intra-community arbitration.”
A Muslim student at UD gave a similar explanation of the courts:
“It’s basically counselors if you’re having marital issues,” the student said. “We have people who are professionals in all kinds of areas so they can help … It had absolutely nothing to do with the law … For Muslims this is how we handle conflicts in marriages … to have someone mediate it.”
The student, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue on campus, added that the bill should have absolutely no affect on the practices of these “courts.”
Opponents of Leach’s bill felt it unnecessarily targeted a religious community already vulnerable to discrimination. The bill was left pending in the house without a vote this session.
“[Van Duyne’s comments fuel] anti-Islamic hysteria,” said the Islamic Center of Irving’s imam, Dr. Zia Sheikh, in the Dallas Morning News.
It was in this atmosphere that Ahmed Mohamed brought his clock to high school.
Van Duyne initially expressed strong support for Irving ISD officials and Irving police, but she tempered that response on Facebook.
“If this happened to my child I would be very upset,” Van Duyne wrote on Facebook along with a statement of support for MacArthur administration’s actions.
Today, Mohamed has withdrawn from Irving’s public school system and is considering his future, according to published reports.
For now, that includes a planned trip to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, as well as to MIT, the White House and NASA.