CAIRO – Reflecting barriers facing Muslim scientists after a Texas student was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school, many students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) expressed fears over the growing Islamophobia in the campus.
“That could have been me, arrested for doing what I love, because of my religion,” 21-year-old Amna Magzoub, a Sudanese Muslim studying mechanical engineering at MIT, told the Guardian.
For Magzoub and her Muslim colleagues, the story of Ahmed Mohamed and his clock is not an isolated incident.
A few months ago, MIT Muslim students have been a target of hate campaign when an Islamophobic group created a video calling MIT a hotbed of terror.
The slick video left Muslim students “uncomfortable” and “afraid to be Muslim on campus” at that time.
More recently, anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali gave an inflammatory talk on campus last week, despite Muslims’ opposition to the event.
“I’d been feeling like my religion was under attack,” says Magzoub.
“So the positive reaction to Ahmed was a relief.”
Many Muslim students in the sciences, tech, engineering and math (Stem) see Ahmed’s case as just one example of assumptions Muslim students and scientists must fight.
“Ahmed has proven he is a really capable Muslim engineer,” Thariq Shihipar, a 24-year-old graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, said.
“The more of us that are visible, that will give us the ability to narrate how people see us. We could change people’s minds.”
Religion is the main challenge that faces Muslim scientists who are encountering discrimination on a daily basis.
“There seems to be this shadow that exists, you just can’t seem to escape. You can try to live underneath it and you can try to do what you want to do underneath it,” said Rashied Amini, an Iranian American.
“I’m a NASA JPL systems engineer, a physics PhD student, and founded a company in scientific romantic decision analysis. I don’t know if I’d be doing any of these things if I had to deal with the same level of intolerance that Ahmed went through.
“I was very lucky in that I got a lot of support from my teachers back in high school –but I still encountered racism along the way, even from the very mentors that helped me.”
Bigotry faced by Ahmed reminded many Stem Muslim students and scientists of discrimination they have faced for pursuing the scientific field.
“Let’s face it, Mohammad – you aren’t bright enough,” Mohammad Ali was told. He now has three degrees from Stanford and works as a corporate lawyer doing capital markets/securities work for investment banks and tech companies.
The 27-year-old Muslim recounted how his high school taunted him after asking to transfer into advanced honors and AP classes.
“If I had taken [their] advice to heart that I’m not bright enough, I can’t imagine that I would have had a successful career 10 years down the road,” Ali said.
Another student, Abubakar Abid, who is pursuing his master’s degree in electrical engineering at MIT, recalled when his Pakistani parents warned him against taking any nuclear science courses, to avoid suspicion.
“These are obstacles other kids don’t have to worry about,” said Abid, 22.
Abid and Magzoub are among Stem Muslim students who have encouraged Ahmed and other young Muslims to pursue scientific field and defy challenges.
“Muslims in America traditionally haven’t been a part of shaping the social fabric through media or politics because we don’t have the infrastructure,” said Abid.
“But one way we can make an impact is through social entrepreneurship and leaving a cultural footprint.”
Citing discrimination against Stem Muslim students and scientists, many Muslim students decided not to pursue the scientific field.
“I am currently a sophomore doing Chemical Engineering, but I really wanted to switch to Aerospace Engineering, yet my parents claim that I won’t be able to do anything with my degree since I am a Muslim girl and I wear a scarf. Is this true?” Zahra Khan, a 31-year-old aerospace engineer at MIT who advises aspiring young female engineers at EngineerGirl.org, said.