How does the son of a hateful, anti-gay, anti-Semitic 9/11 terrorist grow up to become a voice for peace and tolerance? Zak Ebrahim explains his amazing journey — and provides some food for thought for the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks — in a recent TED talk (shown in the video below) and in his just-released book, “The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice.”
Ebrahim hasn’t seen his father since El Sayyid A. Nosair was convicted and imprisoned for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing — after which, he, his mother, and his siblings broke off contact with him and changed their names.
In November, 2001, the Chicago Tribune reported that Nosair also used his intimate knowledge of the World Trade Center to help plot the 9/11 terrorist attacks from his jail cell.
Ebrahim’s father’s mad descent into hate and terrorism.
The Daily Mail reports Ebrahim’s mother, Karin Mills was a lapsed Catholic who fell in love with and married Nosair barely a week after meeting him, and converted to Islam. Ebrahim “recalls a ‘relatively normal’ early childhood, with soccer, Disney movies and family togetherness.”
They had settled in Pittsburg, but things went downhill after they fled to Jersey City after Nosair was accused of raping a woman in their mosque. He joined a radical, fundamentalist mosque that an FBI agent once called “the Jersey Jihad office.” And his life — along with Nosair’s family’s — began to unravel.
He lost a job as a lighting technician following an injury and sank into a bitter and hate-filled disillusionment, exacerbated by a new friendship with Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, a Sunni extremist whose credo was ‘Jihad and the rifle alone: No negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues,’ and who counted a young Osama bin Laden among his disciples.
Meanwhile, the household grew more fundamentalist and extreme. Ebrahim writes in his book:
Bigotry just slipped into my system along with everything else: Pi equals 3.14. All Jews are evil, and homosexuality is an abomination. Paris is the capital of France. They all sounded like facts
Ebrahim was only seven years old when his father was accused of assassinating the equally fundamentalist Israel Rabbi Meir Kahane from the Jewish Defense League in 1990. Despite accounts from multiple witnesses, Nosair was acquitted on a technicality, but continued with his terrorist cell and was jailed five years later for his role in the World Trade Center bombing.
By now, Ebrahim was 12 years old.
Ebrahim’s transformation: A series of fortunate events
Ebrahim’s mother divorced Nosair and the family changed their last name, in part to disassociate themselves from him, and in part to escape the death threats. And, finally, Ebrahim had opportunities to see the world through his own eyes.
Ironically, the seeds of Ebrahim’s transformation were planted by his father’s very intolerance. His social isolation and resulting awkwardness — compounded by his family’s frequent moves — attracted unwelcome attention from school bullies.
“Being bullied as a kid created a sense of empathy in me toward the suffering of others. And it comes very unnaturally to me to treat people who are kind in any other way than I would want to be treated […] Because of that feeling, I was able to contrast the stereotypes I’d been taught as a child with real life experience and interaction.”
As Ebrahim grew older and interacted more with the outside world, his views slowly but surely began to change. Perhaps this is why so many fundamentalists of all religions keep to themselves and want to keep their children out of the public school system.
During a 2000 National Youth Conference he attended as part of a college prep program, Ebrahim befriended a boy who turned out to be Jewish:
Now it had taken several days for this to come to light, and I realized that there was no natural animosity between the two of us. I had never had a Jewish friend before, and frankly, I felt a sense of pride in having been able to overcome a barrier that for most of my life I had been led to believe was insurmountable.”
Then, a summer job at an amusement park exposed Ebrahim to people from all walks of life. He had always been taught that homosexuality is a sin, but:
“As chance would have it, I had the opportunity to work with some of the gay performers at a show there, and soon found that many were the kindest, least judgmental people I had ever met.”
He added that despite their differences, he could relate to his new gay friends because:
“I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, but I’m well-acquainted with being judged for something that’s beyond my control.”
Ebrahim also wryly confesses to another influence that moved him in the right direction: Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.
“Then, there was the Daily Show. On a nightly basis, Jon Stewart forced me to be intellectually honest with myself about my bigotry, and helped me realize that a person’s race, religion, or sexual orientation had nothing to do with the quality of one’s character.”
“Inspiration can often come from an unexpected place, and the fact that a Jewish comedian could do more to positively influence my world view than my own extremist father is not lost on me.”
One day, Ebrahim confessed to his mother that his views were changing:
“And she said something to me that I will hold dear to my heart for as long as I live. She looked at me with the weary eyes of someone who had experienced enough dogmatism to last a lifetime and said, ‘I’m tired of hating people.’ In that instant, I realized how much negative energy it takes to hold that hatred inside of you.”
From there, Ebrahim turned towards the light of peace and tolerance, and never looked back.
Zak Ebrahim speaks.
Unfortunately, Ebrahim’s newly-embraced peace and tolerance may not protect him from all those death threats for what his father did. But he hopes his “coming out” can promote the idea that not all fanatics need to remain fanatics.
“So, why would I out myself and potentially put myself in danger? I do it in the hope that perhaps someone someday who is compelled to use violence may hear my words and my story and realize that there is a better way; so that I can show people that even though I’d been subjected to this violent, intolerant ideology, I did not become fanaticized.”
Zak Ebrahim explains his amazing and inspiring journey in his Ted talk video below.