He Didn't Build a Clock

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Many readers are noting that fact—it wasn’t technically a homemade clock—in response to the news that Ahmed Mohamed is moving to Qatar, where he was awarded a full scholarship from the Qatar Foundation to “follow their aspirations in education while fostering a culture of innovation and creativity.” As one reader puts it:

The kid didn’t “make” anything; he just pulled an old clock apart and put the remains in a box and brought it to school.

Bill Maher tackled the homemade clock myth in the segment seen above. A blogger first exposed it a month ago. Ian Tuttle took a shot at analyzing some broader context:

Ahmed’s father, Mohamed Elhassan, is something of a self-appointed Islamic activist. After he debated Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones in 2011, the Washington Post wrote:

Elhassan, a native of the Sudan who is now an American citizen, likes to call himself a sheik. He wears a cleric’s flowing white robes and claims hundreds of followers throughout Egypt, Sudan and in the United States.

But he is unknown as a scholar or holy man in the state he has called home for two decades. Religious leaders in Texas say they have never heard of Elhassan, including the imam at the mosque where he worships. “This so-called leader, we have never heard of this person,” said Imam Zia ul Haque Sheikh, the head of the Islamic Center of Irving. “I believe the whole thing is made up.”

So perhaps everything unfolded exactly as originally reported: Ahmed “built” a clock, he simply wanted to show it off, a teacher panicked. But even to those who think that administrators and/or law enforcement overreacted (which I do), or that Ahmed was victimized by his skin color (which I don’t), the details above suggest legitimate questions. In a saner political culture, those questions would have preceded the creation and propagation of the narrative.

A reader is on the same page:

I saw a commenter on another thread about this story sarcastically congratulating America for “chasing away a future Nobel Prize winner.” We cherish our tidy little narratives, and the media does a great job of packaging them.

One more reader:

As a Muslim Arab and non-American, I am ashamed of this. The boy deserves support no doubt, but bombarding him with requests and recognition is sending the wrong messages. Giving him full scholarships is nice, but claiming he represents a young innovator speak volumes of the shallow criteria of what defines innovation these days.

Obviously every institution and country are trying to capitalize on his hour of fame to score few PR points. I have seen enormous youth talents go to waste unnoticed in my country and abroad go to waste and none of these m.f. would have bothered to consider their requests for scholarships.

I predict with 50 percent chance that Ahmed (if not all his family) would be running back to America sooner rather than later when they realize that cultural convenience offered by living in Qatar comes with a cost of increased discrimination and disregard for respect, freedom, and human rights.

Here’s how Human Rights Watch summarizes the country:

Unlike most other Gulf states, Qatar has not experienced serious domestic unrest. Yet the human rights climate remains problematic, particularly for the large and growing migrant worker population. Migrants continue to experience serious rights violations, including forced labor and arbitrary restrictions on the right to leave Qatar, which expose them to exploitation and abuse by employers. Qatar’s poor record on freedom of expression declined further with the announcement of a draft cyber crime law.

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