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Religious freedom and religious accommodations (Part 3)

September 22, 2015

In the last post, I stated several principles which govern the interaction between the majority and a minority. We will now apply these principles to a real-world case, beyond the original story of the Muslim flight attendant.

For reference, the principles are reproduced below:

I believe that people have a right to the free exercise of their religion. This is actually only a small slice of a broader principle: that people have a right to live according to their identity.  

Conversely, it is wrong to require people to violate their conscience, their gender, their sexual orientation, their people's history, or other such categories that form one's core identity.  

I believe that the many - whether it be a large corporation, society at large, or simply "the majority" - also has a right to impose order and insure its own smooth operation.  

Conversely, it is wrong for an individual or a minority group to disrupt the workings of the majority to satisfy their own needs.  

I believe that, in case of a conflict, a balance should be struck. We should take the concerns of all parties into account and weigh them together to achieve a fair solution.  

Conversely, I am against one side simply imposing its will on the other. I will oppose actions whose chief goal is to forcefully restrict the freedom of others, whether it comes from the minority or the majority.  

I believe in cooperative, common-sense solutions characterized by nuance and empathy. 

Conversely, I am against ham-fisted, absolutist, or antagonistic decision making processes.  

Of course, we will not always find perfect solutions that perfectly satisfy all these principles. But especially in such cases, I believe that we should take special care not to favor the strong over the weak, the large corporation over the individual employee, the majority over the minority, or profits over personal rights.

Today, we will tackle the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year old student who was arrested for bringing in a home-assembled digital clock to school. If you haven't heard this story already, please read up on it. The remainder of this post will assume your familiarity with the story.

Now, because this is a recent event, new facts may emerge that changes the character of the story. Of course, I am all for taking into account any new relevant information, and for people always digging deeper for more facts. However, since I have to apply the above principles to SOMETHING, I have decided to take the story, as it appears on Wikipedia today (9/21/15), as canon. Remember that my chief concern is the application of the above principles: I am confident that, regardless of any additional information, the principles can be applied to arrive at a correct conclusion. That will be true even if that conclusion changes based on the new information.

Finally, to the matter at hand: first, Ahmed has the right to live according to his identity - that of being a Muslim student interested in engineering. He is free to put together digital clocks and bring them to school to show to people.

But the school also has a right to ensure its smooth operation and a duty to ensure the safety of its students and staff. At this point, I should point out that the appearance of Ahmed's clock is a legitimate cause for concern. This is true completely independent of any questions about Islamophobia or racism. Imagine that you're a teacher, and you came across this device with nobody nearby. It's been left behind beneath a random student's desk, and it's making beeping sounds. Would that not cause at least a small bit of concern? You would certainly be derelict in your duties if you simply shrugged your shoulders and walked away.

So, now we have a conflict between the student and the school. The principles stated above says that we should look for a balance. Neither party should get an absolute final say in restricting the freedom of the other: the school ought not to treat the student as a terrorist, but the student also ought not to be allowed to bring dangerous-looking device to school and flaunt it. Instead, a balanced solution that maximally preserves the rights of both parties should be sought. In my view, Ahmed's engineering teacher comes closest to striking this balance: upon looking at the clock, the teacher told Ahmed, "that's really nice", but also advised him to keep the device in his backpack the rest of the day. In this interaction, Ahmed is praised and validated for his achievement, but is also gently told that the appearance of his clock is problematic. The student's rights and the school's concerns are both taken into account and adequately protected.

The one additional thing that the engineering teacher could have done is to ask Ahmed to leave the clock with him until the end of the school day, so that he can to show it off to his other students. This would have enhanced both the recognition of the student's achievement, and also the security of the school. Of course, we can't fault the engineering teacher for not coming up with this solution on the spot - it's something that I came up with only due to perfect hindsight and the benefit of sitting calmly at my desk. But it is this kind of win-win solution, which takes the interests of all parties into account, that we always ought to be looking for.

Unfortunately, the story from this point veers off in the opposite direction, to a one-sided lose-lose scenario. The school acts in a unilateral, antagonistic manner, trampling over the student's concerns while only looking out for its own rights: the clock later beeped in Ahmed's English class, and the teacher requested to see it. Ahmed was then reported to the principal's office (up to here, I think things are okay - if you disrupt class with beeping from a scary-looking device, it's not unreasonable for that to merit a report to the principal's office). From there, the police got called in, and Ahmed is interrogated, handcuffed, and sent to a juvenile detention center. He was denied contact with his family, threatened with expulsion, and suspended for three days.

Clearly, the school massively overreacted. At some point in this chain of events - probably pretty early on - it must have become clear that the clock was not a bomb. At that point the school should have turned back from its course, acknowledged its error, and apologized to Ahmed. It should have upheld his right to make clocks and bring them to school, while gently reminding him to be careful about the threatening appearances of his devices. Instead, it plowed ahead on its one-sided course, and now the story is all over the news.

Fortunately, once the story hit the news, American society as a whole reacted to restore the balance by coming to Ahmed's support. He has now been invited to the White House by President Obama, along with receiving a great deal of other opportunities and expressions of support. So Ahmed has been greatly wronged by his school, but society as a whole restored the balance by compensating him for that wrong. That is as it should be. The only thing I might wish to have gone differently is if President Obama's invitation was delivered through Ahmed's school or the local police department, instead of over Twitter. That might have done more to directly compensate for the harm caused to Ahmed from these institutions, and allowed them to apologize to Ahmed gracefully. But of course, I can't fault Obama for not implementing this particular solution, which again only comes to me through hindsight and calming distance.

So in the end, the story appears to have come to an acceptable ending. I just can't help but think that all this would have been unnecessary if more authority figures around Ahmed had been able to see things from multiple perspectives, like his engineering teacher had. But instead, so much of our society seems to be driven by a simplistic, antagonizing, ham-fisted, one-sided narrative. It's not hard to imagine that the school administrators were driven by a safety-first, zero-tolerance policies that says "anything that compromises the safety of the school must be stopped". Conversely, the reaction to Ahmed's plight seems to be driven in part by an equally one-sided "LOL, Americans are racist Islamophobes" narrative. Sometimes we get lucky, and these one-sided narratives collide in such a way as to restore balance, as it did in Ahmed's case. But I still worry about what happens when we don't get lucky.

Next week, we will look at another case where such one-sided thinking leads to problems, which can be solved by the two-sided approach embodied in the principles above.


You may next want to read:
Religious freedom and religious accommodations (Part 4) (Next post of this series)
Religious freedom and religious accommodations (Part 1)
Human laws, natural laws, and the Fourth of July
Another post, from the table of contents

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2 comments on “Religious freedom and religious accommodations (Part 3)”

  1. Haha, it's true enough that this clock scare is pretty simple at the end of the day. But I do often like to complicate things to see that we reach the same conclusion that way. It's a good way to double check our thinking.

    Also, I wanted something non-controversial to tackle using my principles before we moved on to the harder stuff.

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