With his boyish baby face, nerd glasses and NASA T-Shirt, Ahmed Mohamed went from anonymous middle schooler to internet sensation after his arrest for bringing a clock to school resembling a bomb. Celebrities and plebeians alike jumped to protest his treatment with#istandwithahmed comments posted on social media. Even the GOP candidate debate turned to discussion of this fourteen year old boy and his MacGyver-looking invention. Many, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg, decried the loss of creativity as a priority in education, and implored him to keep inventing, along with inviting him to Facebook Headquarters for a visit. A similar response came from our president. Others in the same vein, used the situation to comment on the irony of America’s lagging STEM education and the punishment of a boy that showed promise in the field. Still others (and certainly plenty of thoughts in combination) could not help but point to the problem of Islamophobia in America. Everyone, despite differing opinions on the validity of the school’s actions, understands school safety in a post-Columbine era is as important as it is tricky.
I’m going to forgo the question of whether the actions of MacArthur High School administrators were justified. There are plenty of pundits and armchair analysts doing the work elsewhere. Instead, I would like to take a minute to look at the climate of the area. Ahmed and his family are not an anomaly. There are two Islamic centers in Irving with many more in the surrounding areas. This means both literally and in concept Christians must decide what in means to see ethnic and religious minorities as their neighbor. As a native of a nearby suburb to Irving, I can say the desire to avoid such neighbors in nothing new. Too often fear dictates our interactions.
I remember being in high school in 1999-2000 when the Kashmir conflict created unrest in Pakistan. Our school began to see an influx of Pakistani students. Parents, teachers, and students had to decide how to respond to these “strangers” in their midst. I will never forget being away at a debate tournament on evening during Ramadan. This group of students had been fasting all day. Sundown occurred during one of their rounds, so they were breaking fast even later than usual. I remember being blown away when one of the students offered me half of his sandwich. I had been eating all day with no restrictions, but here he was, with just a sandwich to eat as his first food all day, and he offered me half of it. I learned more that day about the ministry of hospitality than I had ever previously learned in church.
I was reminded of that act this week when Ahmed’s father was seen serving pizza to the reporters gathering outside on his front lawn. I wondered if this family has a better grasp on what it means to “love thy neighbor” than I do.
In an ever-diversifying world, it’s time to re-examine who our neighbors are. This question is asked of Jesus in Luke 10: “Who is our neighbor?” Jesus avoids the request to narrow the parameters and instead tells the story of the Good Samaritan; a story of radical love and hospitality from a surprising character.
Much like the Good Samaritan, the Mohamed family reminds me how to be a better neighbor. They remind me to extend kindness especially to those that question my convictions, disapprove of my religious practice, and misunderstand my intentions. They remind me that such kindness, even in the form of a few pizzas, can reveal a neighbor that is not as foreign as we think.