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TED2014

Zak Ebrahim: I am the son of a terrorist. Here's how I chose peace.

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If you’re raised on dogma and hate, can you choose a different path? Zak Ebrahim was just seven years old when his father helped plan the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. His story is shocking, powerful and, ultimately, inspiring.

- Peace activist
Groomed for terror, Zak Ebrahim chose a different life. The author of The Terrorist's Son, he hopes his story will inspire others to reject a path of violence. Full bio

On November 5th, 1990,
00:14
a man named El-Sayyid Nosair walked
00:16
into a hotel in Manhattan
00:19
and assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane,
00:21
the leader of the Jewish Defense League.
00:24
Nosair was initially found not guilty of the murder,
00:28
but while serving time on lesser charges,
00:31
he and other men began planning attacks
00:34
on a dozen New York City landmarks,
00:37
including tunnels, synagogues
00:39
and the United Nations headquarters.
00:41
Thankfully, those plans were foiled
00:44
by an FBI informant.
00:46
Sadly, the 1993 bombing
00:49
of the World Trade Center was not.
00:51
Nosair would eventually be convicted
00:54
for his involvement in the plot.
00:56
El-Sayyid Nosair is my father.
00:59
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
01:04
in 1983 to him, an Egyptian engineer,
01:06
and a loving American mother
and grade school teacher,
01:09
who together tried their best
01:13
to create a happy childhood for me.
01:14
It wasn't until I was seven years old
01:17
that our family dynamic started to change.
01:18
My father exposed me to a side of Islam
01:22
that few people, including the majority of Muslims,
01:25
get to see.
01:28
It's been my experience that when people
01:31
take the time to interact with one another,
01:32
it doesn't take long to realize that for the most part,
01:35
we all want the same things out of life.
01:38
However, in every religion, in every population,
01:40
you'll find a small percentage of people
01:43
who hold so fervently to their beliefs
01:46
that they feel they must use any means necessary
01:49
to make others live as they do.
01:52
A few months prior to his arrest,
01:55
he sat me down and explained that
01:57
for the past few weekends, he and some friends
01:59
had been going to a shooting range on Long Island
02:02
for target practice.
02:04
He told me I'd be going with him the next morning.
02:07
We arrived at Calverton Shooting Range,
02:10
which unbeknownst to our group was being watched
02:12
by the FBI.
02:15
When it was my turn to shoot,
02:18
my father helped me hold the rifle to my shoulder
02:19
and explained how to aim at the target
02:21
about 30 yards off.
02:23
That day, the last bullet I shot
02:26
hit the small orange light that sat on top of the target
02:28
and to everyone's surprise, especially mine,
02:31
the entire target burst into flames.
02:35
My uncle turned to the other men,
02:39
and in Arabic said, "Ibn abuh."
02:40
Like father, like son.
02:44
They all seemed to get a really
big laugh out of that comment,
02:47
but it wasn't until a few years later
02:50
that I fully understood what
they thought was so funny.
02:52
They thought they saw in me the same destruction
02:56
my father was capable of.
02:58
Those men would eventually be convicted
03:01
of placing a van filled with
1,500 pounds of explosives
03:04
into the sub-level parking lot of the
World Trade Center's North Tower,
03:08
causing an explosion that killed six people
03:12
and injured over 1,000 others.
03:15
These were the men I looked up to.
03:18
These were the men I called
ammu, which means uncle.
03:20
By the time I turned 19,
03:25
I had already moved 20 times in my life,
03:26
and that instability during my childhood
03:30
didn't really provide an opportunity
03:32
to make many friends.
03:33
Each time I would begin to feel
comfortable around someone,
03:35
it was time to pack up and move to the next town.
03:38
Being the perpetual new face in class,
03:41
I was frequently the target of bullies.
03:44
I kept my identity a secret from my classmates
03:46
to avoid being targeted,
03:48
but as it turns out, being the
quiet, chubby new kid in class
03:50
was more than enough ammunition.
03:53
So for the most part, I spent my time at home
03:56
reading books and watching TV
03:58
or playing video games.
04:00
For those reasons, my social skills were lacking,
04:01
to say the least,
04:04
and growing up in a bigoted household,
04:06
I wasn't prepared for the real world.
04:08
I'd been raised to judge people
04:10
based on arbitrary measurements,
04:12
like a person's race or religion.
04:14
So what opened my eyes?
04:18
One of my first experiences
04:21
that challenged this way of thinking
04:23
was during the 2000 presidential elections.
04:25
Through a college prep program,
04:28
I was able to take part
04:30
in the National Youth Convention in Philadelphia.
04:31
My particular group's focus was on youth violence,
04:34
and having been the victim
of bullying for most of my life,
04:37
this was a subject in which
I felt particularly passionate.
04:40
The members of our group came
from many different walks of life.
04:44
One day toward the end of the convention,
04:48
I found out that one of the kids I had befriended
04:50
was Jewish.
04:53
Now, it had taken several days
04:55
for this detail to come to light,
04:57
and I realized that there was no natural animosity
04:58
between the two of us.
05:02
I had never had a Jewish friend before,
05:04
and frankly I felt a sense of pride
05:07
in having been able to overcome a barrier
05:10
that for most of my life I had been led to believe
05:12
was insurmountable.
05:14
Another major turning point came when
05:17
I found a summer job at Busch Gardens,
05:19
an amusement park.
05:21
There, I was exposed to people
from all sorts of faiths and cultures,
05:24
and that experience proved to be fundamental
05:27
to the development of my character.
05:29
Most of my life, I'd been taught
05:33
that homosexuality was a sin, and by extension,
05:34
that all gay people were a negative influence.
05:38
As chance would have it, I had the opportunity
05:41
to work with some of the gay performers
05:44
at a show there,
05:45
and soon found that many were the kindest,
05:47
least judgmental people I had ever met.
05:49
Being bullied as a kid
05:53
created a sense of empathy in me
05:55
toward the suffering of others,
05:58
and it comes very unnaturally to me
05:59
to treat people who are kind
06:01
in any other way than how
I would want to be treated.
06:03
Because of that feeling, I was able
06:07
to contrast the stereotypes I'd been taught as a child
06:09
with real life experience and interaction.
06:14
I don't know what it's like to be gay,
06:17
but I'm well acquainted with being judged
06:19
for something that's beyond my control.
06:21
Then there was "The Daily Show."
06:25
On a nightly basis, Jon Stewart forced me
06:29
to be intellectually honest with
myself about my own bigotry
06:31
and helped me to realize that a person's race,
06:35
religion or sexual orientation
06:37
had nothing to do with the quality of one's character.
06:40
He was in many ways a father figure to me
06:45
when I was in desperate need of one.
06:48
Inspiration can often come
from an unexpected place,
06:51
and the fact that a Jewish comedian had done more
06:55
to positively influence my worldview
06:58
than my own extremist father
07:00
is not lost on me.
07:02
One day, I had a conversation with my mother
07:05
about how my worldview was starting to change,
07:07
and she said something to me
07:10
that I will hold dear to my heart
07:12
for as long as I live.
07:14
She looked at me with the weary eyes
07:17
of someone who had experienced
07:19
enough dogmatism to last a lifetime, and said,
07:20
"I'm tired of hating people."
07:24
In that instant, I realized how much negative energy
07:28
it takes to hold that hatred inside of you.
07:31
Zak Ebrahim is not my real name.
07:36
I changed it when my family decided
07:39
to end our connection with my father
07:41
and start a new life.
07:42
So why would I out myself
07:45
and potentially put myself in danger?
07:47
Well, that's simple.
07:50
I do it in the hopes that perhaps someone someday
07:52
who is compelled to use violence
07:56
may hear my story and realize
07:58
that there is a better way,
08:00
that although I had been subjected
08:03
to this violent, intolerant ideology,
08:04
that I did not become fanaticized.
08:07
Instead, I choose to use my experience
08:10
to fight back against terrorism,
08:12
against the bigotry.
08:15
I do it for the victims of terrorism
08:19
and their loved ones,
08:22
for the terrible pain and loss
08:24
that terrorism has forced upon their lives.
08:26
For the victims of terrorism, I will speak out
08:29
against these senseless acts
08:31
and condemn my father's actions.
08:34
And with that simple fact, I stand here as proof
08:38
that violence isn't inherent in one's religion or race,
08:41
and the son does not have to follow
08:45
the ways of his father.
08:48
I am not my father.
08:51
Thank you. (Applause)
08:54
Thank you, everybody. (Applause)
08:57
Thank you all. (Applause)
09:01
Thanks a lot. (Applause)
09:03
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Mad Aronson

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About the speaker:

Zak Ebrahim - Peace activist
Groomed for terror, Zak Ebrahim chose a different life. The author of The Terrorist's Son, he hopes his story will inspire others to reject a path of violence.

Why you should listen

When Zak Ebrahim was seven, his family went on the run. His father, El Sayyid Nosair, had hoped Zak would follow in his footsteps -- and become a jihadist. Instead, Zak was at the beginning of a long journey to comprehend his past.

Zak Ebrahim kept his family history a secret as they moved through a long succession of towns. In 2010, he realized his experience as a terrorist’s son not only gave him a unique perspective, but also a unique chance to show that if he could escape a violent heritage, anyone could. As he told Truthdig.com, “We must embrace tolerance and nonviolence. Who knows this better than the son of a terrorist?”

In 2014 Ebrahim published the TED Book The Terrorist's Son, a memoir written with Jeff Giles about the path he took to turn away from hate. In early 2015 the book won an American Library Association Alex award.

More profile about the speaker
Zak Ebrahim | Speaker | TED.com