I haven’t written until now about Ahmed Mohamed, the gifted Texas teenager who was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school to show off his engineering prowess. Ahmed’s teachers claimed that they thought the device was a bomb, but it’s obvious that the real reason for their absurd overreaction was racism and xenophobia (Ahmed and his family are Muslim and of Sudanese descent). Anything even slightly out of the ordinary from a brown or a black person triggers panic reactions and hair-trigger aggression from authority figures, whereas there’s no hint of a chance that the police would have been called over a nerdy white teenager’s engineering project.
Ahmed’s family is planning to sue the school district for $15 million, and you can read the letter their lawyer sent. The facts it lays out are damning: Ahmed – a 14-year-old, let’s remember – was aggressively interrogated by five police officers. He asked for his parents to be present, which was his right under Texas law, but was denied. An assistant principal threatened him with expulsion if he didn’t sign a confession on the spot. When he wouldn’t give in – which shows uncommon courage, under the circumstances – he was arrested on spurious charges and hauled off without being read his rights. The mayor and the town police chief then took turns trashing him in the media, calling it highly suspicious that he wouldn’t confess to what they initially accused him of.
All the while, the school and the police knew perfectly well that his clock wasn’t dangerous, since they never evacuated the building, called a bomb squad, or did any of the other things you’d expect someone to do if they faced what they thought was an explosive device. The conclusion that Ahmed’s civil rights were violated is inescapable. I’ll leave the amount up to a judge and jury, but under the circumstances, monetary damages seem more than reasonable.
Ahmed has already been compensated in other ways for his ordeal, including a White House invitation from President Obama, recognition and praise from Facebook, Google, NASA, the United Nations, and more. However, there’s one public figure who hasn’t been so enthusiastic:
Don't call him "clock boy" since he never made a clock. Hoax Boy, having hoaxed his way into the White House, now wants $15M in addition!
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) November 24, 2015
Yep, Richard Dawkins is at it again. In the past few weeks, he’s been commenting repeatedly on Ahmed’s case, giving voice to a bizarre obsession. He’s labeled Ahmed “Hoax Boy”, accused him of lying because he built the clock from existing parts (rather than machining each piece from scratch like an Ayn Rand protagonist), and accused him of deliberately plotting the whole affair to drum up publicity (speculating that “he wanted the police to arrest him”, because of course that’s how teenagers think). And then we got this topper:
"But he's only a kid." Yes, a "kid" old enough to sue for $15M those whom he hoaxed. And how old is this "kid"? https://t.co/kjzxGDs5Az— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) November 24, 2015
Just let that sink in. Richard Dawkins, science communicator extraordinaire, author of books like An Appetite for Wonder and The Magic of Reality, is devoting his considerable public platform to trashing a teenager and pouring scorn on his interest in science and technology. For the crime of being a Muslim boy who likes to tinker with electronics, Dawkins has attacked Ahmed repeatedly, over a period of weeks, in multiple forums; has concocted an elaborate conspiracy theory about his motives; and has now compared him to murderous child soldiers.
Is this what we want the atheist movement to be? Is this the person we want to speak for us?
In what’s become an entirely predictable pattern, after Dawkins was fiercely criticized for his remarks, he issued a backpedaling statement claiming to be “horrified” that anyone could think he was equating Ahmed with ISIS. Remember, this man is supposed to be an expert in communication, yet he’s constantly shocked, bewildered and stunned by the backlash his remarks attract. Shouldn’t there come a point where he realizes that the problem is with him and the way he expresses himself? Why is this so-called communications expert so utterly unable to predict how people will react to what he says? (See also: Down syndrome, “mild pedophilia“, Dear Muslima, honey, etc.)
I admit, I wrestled with whether to write this post at all. Poring over Dawkins’ every remark, even to criticize, just perpetuates the idea that he represents the Official Viewpoint of Atheism. If we’re embarrassed by his tone-deaf crankery and want to shuffle him off the stage, then I think the best thing we can do is not mention him. Instead, we should highlight the upcoming generation of secular activists who deserve the publicity more.
However, the wider atheist community hasn’t gotten the message. Other atheists eagerly seek out Dawkins’ endorsement. He’s a top-billed speaker at the second Reason Rally planned for next year, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t diminish my enthusiasm for attending. Regardless of what I think about him, he is treated as if he’s the president of the atheist movement. Not only are his views assumed to be ours, his constant blunders distract attention from the valid and important points we have to make. That’s why it’s still important, when he makes these boneheaded proclamations, for atheists to emphasize that atheism is far more than just Richard Dawkins. He doesn’t speak for all of us, he doesn’t represent us, and more than a few of us consider him an embarrassment.