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Ahmed Mohamed and Thomas Jefferson: A tale of two clocks

A Texas teen’s journey from handcuffs to presidential handshakes reminds us how far some remain from understanding this nation’s founding ideals, a lesson a former president – and inventor – might help us understand even as 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed visits the White House at the invitation of President Obama.

A month ago, the Irving, Texas, high school student was arrested for demonstrating ingenuity while Muslim by inventing a clock. Like Ahmed, Thomas Jefferson was an inventor. Coincidentally, he also helped imagine our concept of religious freedom.

{mosads}Jefferson, like the Texas teen, also loved a new gadget.

In 1806, while a second-term president, Jefferson tinkered with U.S. patent-holder Charles Willson Peale’s new machine, a device Jefferson once said he, “could not live without,” an apparatus designed to make an exact copy of handwritten correspondence, called the Polygraph. He proudly wanted to craft a version “entirely mounted in silver,” as a present for the ruler of Tripoli. The United States had just concluded a five-year undeclared war with the North African kingdom.

Our peace treaty with Tripoli declared: “…the Government of the United States of America has in itself no character of enmity against the Laws, Religion, or Tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims].”          

But 209 years later, some Texans vehemently disagree, leading to the unwarranted arrest and unlawful interrogation of Ahmed on Sept. 16, when he brought his new invention to school to impress his teachers.

The nifty clock invented by the young member of the robotics club prompted false charges he had created a “hoax bomb,” an ordeal that made the student feel like a “criminal” and a “terrorist.”

This is not the first assault on Muslim civil liberties in Texas this year, and it won’t be the last. At Texas Muslim Capitol Day in January, a heckler seized the organizer’s microphone, shouting: “I want to inspire Americans against this and proclaim for Jesus Christ and not for their god, Allah.”

One would think from such talk that American civil liberties only belonged to Christians, a proposition Thomas Jefferson rejected. A few months after penning the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he took note of the English philosopher John Locke’s inclusive words: “neither Pagan nor Mahometan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”

Hatred of Islam at the national level is not new, either. At a town hall meeting in September, a supporter of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed President Obama a Muslim, asking when “we” could “get rid of them.” Trump’s birther-mania had finally come home to roost, conflated with his Islamophobia.

But the accusation, which Trump declined to correct, promotes the fallacy that Muslim citizens are un– or even anti-American, a precedent fellow GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson appeared to second even more recently when he mistakenly claimed Islam not “consistent” with the Constitution. Unchallenged, this same toxic fusion of racial and religious bigotry resulted in Ahmed Mohamed’s wrongful imprisonment. Like Obama, whose father was Kenyan, the Texan teen inventor’s parents hale from Africa; but, unlike the president, he and his family are Muslims.

Jefferson, like Obama, once was a victim of a presidential smear campaign, one that condemned him as an “infidel,” a word that in the 18th century meant not just unbeliever but Muslim.

But, would Jefferson, ever intrigued by novel machines, have taken a stand with Ahmed, as Obama did when he tweeted, “Cool clock, Ahmed”?

Alas, Jefferson, who also invented a clock – in the form of a spherical sundial – forced his young male slaves the same age as Ahmed to work 14-hour-days in his nail factory. This gave the Founder his leisure to invent.

At Monticello, a replica of Jefferson’s sundial still may be seen, but the sun has set on the enslavement of children because of the color of their skin.

Using the Polygraph to write five years before his death, Jefferson, our first “infidel” president, championed the rights of Muslim citizens, writing that he intended his Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom “to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination,” wherein he wrote these immortal words: “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.”

This is a powerful American precedent for those who dare to defend the equality of all our hopeful, ingenious children, regardless of race or religion.

Spellberg is professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. 

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