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The science fair project heard ’round the world

'Cool clock, Ahmed.'


Kevin Collier

Internet Culture

Posted on Jan 4, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 10:19 am CDT

Few high school science projects spark a nationwide debate on Islamophobia in the U.S.

Ahmed Mohamed, a freshman in Irving, Texas, certainly didn’t mean to create anything besides a clock when he assembled a mess of electronics in a box in September. Known to his MacArthur High School classmates as “Inventor Kid,” Mohamed had a knack for putting together electronics in his free time and wanted to show his engineering teacher what he’d figured out over the weekend.

But school authorities feared the worst, and things quickly spiraled out of hand. An English teacher said his clock looked like a bomb, confiscated it, and sent it to the principal’s office. The school called the police, who arrested Mohamed for possessing what they said was a “hoax bomb,” which is illegal in Texas. Eventually, police let him go, but his school suspended him for three days.

His story went viral and was met with almost universal outrage. “This is what happens when we screw something up,” one Irving Police officer wrote to his fellow officers.

From there, things started seriously looking up. He received words of support from Hillary Clinton, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and multiple employees at NASA, his dream employer. Topping it off, he got a personal invitation to visit President Obama at the White House (“IT WAS AMAZING,” he tweeted). Eventually, he even got his clock back from Irving Police.

Still, he couldn’t go back to MacArthur. “I’m doing well in Qatar,” he told the Daily Dot, referring to his new home, where he relocated after accepting a scholarship to attend a prestigious program in Doha.

Though his family moved abroad, they don’t consider matters settled in America. In late November, the family sent a letter demanding a total of $15 million in damages from the city of Irving and its school district, as well as written apologies from the mayor, chief of police, and Irving ISD.

“This family left their home in Irving because of a very rational fear for their physical safety,” the letter reads. “On an elemental level, the Mohamed family’s life as any of them had known it evaporated that day at the hands of the Irving ISD and City of Irving.”

Illustration by Tiffany Pai

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*First Published: Jan 4, 2016, 12:33 pm CST